Idaho Citizens Criticize EPA Superfund Process

Published September 3, 2010

Residents of Idaho’s picturesque Silver Valley are up in arms over a plan by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prolong the cleanup of mining waste in the area for another 50 to 100 years and possibly longer. Residents say they fear their communities will be turned into a never-ending Superfund site,

Project Keeps Expanding
The long-simmering dispute between EPA and local residents came to a boil August 9 at a public hearing in Kellogg.

Dan Opalski, cleanup director for EPA’s regional office in Seattle, tried to convince the audience of some 200 citizens the agency’s proposal was the best way to restore water quality in the region and reduce pollution left over from an earlier generation of mining. He said the plan was compatible with “responsible miming” and the cleanup project would create another 425 jobs in the area.

But EPA’s proposal is so vast that Opalski’s assurances fell largely on deaf ears. Under EPA’s plan the Superfund site would be expanded to cover 300 square miles of the Coeur d’Alene River Basin, cost $1.3 billion (in current dollars), and last for a yet-to-be-determined number of decades.

“We don’t need our community to go through the devastation of being a Superfund site for 30 or 50 or 90 years,” said Wallace Mayor Dick Vester  according to the August 10 Spokane Spokesman-Review. “We don’t want this thing to go on forever.”

It has already gone on for nearly three decades. EPA first put the site of the old Bunker Hill Mining Company on its Superfund National Priority List (NPL) in 1983. The company had mined and smelted lead and silver for a century, much of it at a time when mining practices were lax by today’s standards.

Lead Spread by Fire
A pivotal moment in Bunker Hill’s history occurred in 1973, when a devastating fire broke out in the mine’s smelter, which is used to melt ore in order to extract metals from it. The fire occurred in the smelter’s bag house, a filtration system designed to capture emissions, including those of lead oxide, from escaping into the environment.

Bunker Hill’s owners at the time, who were based in Texas, did not complete the repair to the bag house for nearly a year, while an estimated 40 to 60 tons of lead oxide per month escaped into the air. Elevated levels of lead oxide can cause lead poisoning.      

Punishing the Local Economy
Nobody seriously doubts the area underwent environmental degradation, largely as a result of the bag house fire. The question is whether EPA’s constantly changing cleanup plans will stigmatize the once-prosperous but now economically depressed region, causig businesses to stay away.

In the struggle to win over the hearts and minds of local residents, the agency has often been its own worst enemy. In the years following the initial 1983 NPL designation, for example, EPA assured local communities the Bunker Hill Superfund site would not be expanded beyond a couple of square miles. EPA now says the site should include 300 square miles.

With China aggressively pursuing precious metals all over the world, the mineral-rich Silver Valley could be in line for an an economic rebound which EPA’s prolonged stay in the area would place at risk.

‘Get Out of Our State’
EPA’s projection that the cleanup will cost $1.3 billion has been met with widespread skepticism. As the Spokane Spokesman-Review pointed out in an August 11 editorial, “It goes without saying that a cleanup plan projected to take possibly until the year 2100 or beyond is going to be revised multiple times. Any cost estimate made today will have been rendered a fiction by the time the job is over.”

“This is another federal government money pit that will do nothing but drive away business investment in the region and waste time and money,” said Wayne Hoffman, executive director of the Boise-based Idaho Freedom Foundation. 

“We would like nothing more than for the federal government to leave us alone, get out of our state, and stop creating new schemes to meddle in our affairs,” Hoffman added.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.