WaterPlanet.ws - Document

Home | Currents | Resources | About | John & Rachael Paschal Osborn
Title: Deficiencies in Cleanup Plan, guest editorial
Author: John Osborn, MD
Date: August 31, 2002 | ID#: 020831
Category: Coeur d'Alene Superfund
Keywords: Mine wastes, Coeur d'Alene River, Lake Coeur d'Alene, Spokane River, lead, zinc, Superfund, Gary Locke

visits since August 19, 2003

The following guest editorial appeared in the Spokesman-Review and The Idaho Statesman


Basin cleanup will require cooperation

John Osborn

Special to The Spokesman-Review

The Environmental Protection Agency will soon release a cleanup plan for the Coeur d'Alene-Spokane River basin, home to 500,000 people. A state line bisects our communities. As a region, we need to pull together and succeed in cleaning up toxic mine wastes in our communities and waters.

The stakes are high. The plan could be a critical and constructive investment in the future of our region, or a waste of hundreds of millions of dollars. A thorough cleanup -- especially in the former mining communities -- will be an engine for economic development.

Human health, especially for children and women of child-bearing age, is paramount in any cleanup.

While Lake Coeur d'Alene is considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, 70 million tons of toxic sediments are on the bottom, and 100 million more tons are perched upstream. In only one day of the 1996 flood, more than 1 million pounds of lead flowed into the lake.

The pollution doesn't stop in Idaho.

Especially during floods, mine wastes pollute the Spokane River. Zinc kills aquatic life. Lead washes up on the beaches.

Our basin's cleanup plan must satisfy key elements:

  • It must be a comprehensive plan with scientific integrity.
  • The agency implementing the plan must be committed to the cleanup.
  • Funding must be reliable.
  • The cleanup must be monitored to ensure accountability.

The draft EPA plan that we have seen had major deficiencies:

  • The plan is inadequate for the 100 million tons upstream from the lake, the major ongoing lead source for Lake Coeur d'Alene and the Spokane River.
  • Floods from the Coeur d'Alene National Forest (the most damaged in the nation) carry millions of pounds of lead into Lake Coeur d'Alene, but the plan is silent on remedies for forests trashed by clear-cutting and logging roads.
  • Zinc, especially from the Bunker Hill Superfund site, is polluting the entire river and lake system, and the plan offers no remedies.
  • Risks to children and women of child-bearing age are inadequately addressed. These risks include house dusts, the major source of lead poisoning, and substandard cleanup thresholds.
  • Seventy-million tons of toxic sediments are on the bottom of Lake Coeur d'Alene, and the plan fails to provide a remedy other than some vague assurances of using a "lake management plan."

How can an Idaho-based commission, represented by officials and industry long opposed to a cleanup, restore the whole basin? To carry out a cleanup in the decades ahead, the agency responsible for the action has to be committed to it.

Some in Washington state have opposed the Idaho commission because it fails to give Washington (where 80 percent of the people live in this basin) an equal voice with Idaho. Gov. Gary Locke shocked local environmentalists when he signed up for the Idaho commission, thereby selling out Washington.

Implementing a cleanup plan will require money. Some money can be obtained from the polluters, including Asarco. More money perhaps can be extracted from another deep-pockets polluter, Union Pacific Railroad, whose trains left a long trail of pollution. Taxpayers in Idaho (and Washington) will also pay. But much more is needed.

Idaho's poisons and current political leaders are linked by campaign contributions. Idaho Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo want general taxpayers, not polluting corporations, to pay for the cleanup.

Congress must act. The "polluter pays" tax on oil and chemical companies was designed specifically for places like the Coeur d'Alene basin, where money can't be collected from the responsible parties. Congress stopped the tax in 1994, and the Superfund trust fund is almost out of money. If the six members of Congress who represent the Coeur d'Alene-Spokane Basin are serious about a cleanup, then they should team up to advocate for a renewal of the "polluter pays" tax. No funding, no cleanup.

There can be no accountability without monitoring. This is not an alien concept: We monitor blood pressures and cholesterols, glucose levels in diabetes and oxygen levels in emphysema to ensure that health objectives are met. A chronic disease has been inflicted on this watershed by toxic mine wastes: Monitoring ensures accountability for the cleanup.

People respond to a bad diagnosis in fairly characteristic ways. There is denial, anger, grieving, bargaining and eventually acceptance. Over the past 14 years, I have witnessed much of this. Diagnosis is also the first step to treatment: a cleanup plan that will protect human health, our waters, and our economic future. Let's get on with it.


Raised in Idaho, John Osborn is a Spokane physician. He has worked to protect and restore the Spokane River's watershed since 1983. He is founder of The Lands Council and has served as the Sierra Club's conservation chair for Idaho and Eastern Washington since 1985.