U.S. Water News Online
BOISE, Idaho -- All children aged 1 to 4 in the Coeur
d'Alene Basin corridor that stretches from Montana across Idaho to
Spokane, Wash., should have their blood sampled for lead each year, a
national science panel recommended.
The National Academies of Science committee also concluded in a
new study that the only way to extinguish a "legacy of contamination"
from decades of silver, lead and zinc mining is a massive, lengthy,
expensive cleanup of the spidery Northern Rockies drainage.
The congressionally ordered study endorsed the Environmental
Protection Agency's ambitious plan to greatly expand federal
Superfund cleanup authority beyond the 21-square-mile "box"
surrounding the Bunker Hill smelter and mining complex in Kellogg.
EPA began cleaning the smelter site in 1983 after it was placed on
the national Superfund priorities list and has spent more than $250
million thus far. In 1998, the agency announced a $359 million
expansion of the cleanup to encompass the basin, a decision that was
met with widespread criticism by residents who feared the Superfund
designation would create a social and economic stigma for the region.
EPA officials were still reviewing the study but said they were
gratified by the panel's overall conclusions.
"Their report suggests that contrary to a position that you should
narrow your activities, they say we really do need to take a big
picture view of the system and look at how each piece of the problem
is connected with the other pieces," said Dan Opalski, Pacific
Northwest regional EPA Superfund director in Seattle.
Environmentalists also hailed the findings as validation of
long-standing fears that mine tailings dumped into the Coeur d'Alene
River and along stream banks beginning in the 19th century are slowly
poisoning people, fish and animals. The conclusion by the Academies'
National Research Council was a blow, however, to Silver Valley
residents and organizations that oppose the sprawling Superfund
designation and to members of Idaho's congressional delegation, which
had requested the $850,000 study in 2002 to challenge EPA's cleanup
"We remain committed to working with the (Coeur d'Alene) Basin
Commission in monitoring this process and to ensuring that the
well-being of the people of the Coeur d'Alene Basin is its highest
priority," Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo and Reps. Mike Simpson
and C.L. "Butch" Otter said in a terse statement.
"They are the ones that asked for this and our feeling was they
wanted to use the National Academies to undermine the science of
EPA," said John Osborn, a Spokane physician and Sierra Club
conservation chairman for Idaho and Eastern Washington. "We've
inflicted a chronic disease on this watershed and it's going to
require a long-term effort with state and federal leadership to fix
The study, presented recently at a public meeting at North Idaho
College in Coeur d'Alene, said the current random rate of childhood
blood testing is insufficient to measure potentially harmful effects
of lead poisoning. It also commended EPA's program to replace
contaminated soil with new dirt in the yards of homes in the basin.
It called for greater monitoring of chronic psychological stress
related to living in or around Superfund zones and more research into
measuring human arsenic exposure.
Researchers said EPA needed to do more to identify threats to the
basin environment by pinpointing places where zinc is leaching into
groundwater and removing or stabilizing the biggest accumulations of
lead-contaminated riverbed sediment.
But researchers stopped short of calling for dredging the
accumulations of heavy metal contamination that have settled in Lake
Coeur d'Alene, hub of the basin's booming recreational industry.
"Right now there's insufficient information on the toxicology of
the lake, the geochemistry of the lake, the kind of organisms that
are present, and what the potential effect of lake changes are,
including impacts from including human development, to come up with a
credible plan to remediate the lake," said David Tollerud, a
University of Kentucky public health and pharmacology professor who
chaired the study committee.
One of the biggest challenges EPA has, the study found, is to find
a safe place to put the millions of tons of contaminated dirt that
must be removed from shorelines, streambeds, neighborhoods and flood
zones in the mountainous watershed.
"Just like siting any repository at any Superfund site, you have
community interest and topographic interest, but we need to remove or
contain these materials to ensure people and wildlife are no longer
exposed to them," said Anne Dailey, EPA environmental scientist and
Coeur d'Alene Basin project manager.
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