by Julie Titone
One is noted for its deadly urgency and nearly unanimous call for action. The other is known for its massive scale a nd a searing public debate.
They're the Inland Northwest's best-known toxic sites. The first -- Libby, Mont. -- is less likely to be affected by dramatic drops in the Superfund budget. Efforts to clean up mining wastes originating in North Idaho's Silver Valley are a sure target for cutbacks, however, unless Congress comes up with money to replenish Superfund's fast-draining bank account.
"It's fair to assume the Coeur d'Alene Basin project is really in the crosshairs," says Mike Gearhard, head of environmental cleanup for the Environmental Protection Agency's Northwest region.
Here's a quick look at the two situations:
Libby, Mont. -- Because of exposure to asbestos, the town's residents are dying of lung disease at a rate 60 times the national average. Despite a moratorium on additions to the National Priorities List, the EPA proposed Libby for listing in February. The reason: Montana's governor -- in a region where conservative politicians are about as fond of Superfund as they are of eco-terrorists -- actually sought the designation.
After a two-month public comment period ends in April, Libby is almost certain to become a Superfund site. With as many as 200 asbestos-related deaths, there is little discussion of the need.
Since 1999, the EPA has spent $30 million on emergency cleanup in Libby. Early estimates are that another $30 million will be needed to eliminate asbestos exposure in the town. That doesn't clean up the nearby defunct vermiculite mine, however, where workers were exposed to asbestos for decades. They brought it home on their clothes. Their children played in piles of mining waste.
The EPA is in court, fighting to recoup some of the money from the bankrupt mine owner, W.R. Grace. But for now, all cleanup costs are paid from the Superfund budget, which includes both general fund money and the last proceeds of a tax that was formerly levied on the oil and chemical industries.
The EPA's Jim Christiansen will be managing the long-term cleanup of Libby. "We're playing wait-and-see with headquarters to see how they're going ration out the [Superfund] money," he says. "But Libby is a high-priority site. I have less concern [about funding] for it than I do for other sites. The human health impacts are large and measurable here."
Coeur d'Alene Basin -- "Large" doesn't begin to describe the impacts of lead, zinc, arsenic and other metals on this 1,500-square-mile area. But those impacts are hard to measure, both in terms of human health and the environment.
Superfund came to the basin in 1983, when the defunct Bunker Hill lead smelter near Kellogg, Idaho, was designated ground zero for 100 years of mining waste contamination. The EPA drew a figurative 21-square-mile box around the smelter, and concentrated its cleanup efforts there. The work took nearly two decades to complete. By that time, many Silver Valley residents felt stigmatized by the Superfund label and were ready to say "good riddance" to the agency, which began turning its attention upstream and downstream of Kellogg. Metals are still seeping from mine openings, still piled up on the bottom of Lake Coeur d'Alene, still making their way into Washington State via the Spokane River.
The EPA has proposed a cleanup of selected "hot spots," such as recreational areas where children can be exposed to metals, and wetlands, where waterfowl routinely die of lead poisoning. The work will cost an estimated $359 million. It will take 20 to 30 years to complete. The agency's Seattle office is reviewing 1,200 comments that were made about the plan. A final cleanup plan is due for release this spring.
Meanwhile, the mining industry has fallen on hard times. Chances of getting more corporate money to pay for cleanup are dimming, which means the Superfund must ante up.
Many people, including Idaho's congressmen, fought the expansion of Superfund work outside the Bunker Hill box. Other groups -- notably the Coeur d'Alene Indians, environmental activists and politicians in Washington state -- have pressed for more comprehensive work. But regardless of their support for EPA or their opposition to the agency, "the vast majority" of people think some cleanup is necessary, says Marianne Deppman, the EPA's community liaison for the Coeur d'Alene Basin project. "They want to move ahead as quickly as possible, so we can get this behind us."
How quickly that's done depends on the willingness of Congress to find a way to pay for the work.