Decades of careless mining practices in the Silver Valley created toxic waste buildup in the sediment along the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River, Lake Coeur d'Alene and the Spokane River. Now studies show that excessive clear-cutting in the Coeur d'Alene National Forest is aggravating those polluted areas.
"The damaged watershed releases floods, and those floods are disgorged onto the flood plain covered with 100,000 million tons of mine waste from the Coeur d'Alene mines," says John Osborn, founder of the Lands Council. "So when you combine forest damage with mine waste, you get toxic floods in the Coeur d'Alene. For instance, in a single day back in 1996, the U.S. Geological Survey calculated that over a million pounds of lead flowed into Lake Coeur d'Alene. The lake contains 60 million tons of toxic material. It is an inefficient trap for mine waste, and so these floods carry the pollution out of the lake and into the Spokane River, polluting the Spokane River beaches."
Environmental activists say that despite the evidence of flooding, the Environmental Protection Agency (the government body in charge of overseeing the cleanup of the CdA Basin Superfund site) isn't doing anything about the Spokane River -- called the nation's sixth-most polluted river by the conservation organization American Rivers. Logging in the Coeur d'Alene National Forest, moreover, is contributing to the pollution. But because of bureaucratic stipulations, the EPA is failing to take action.
"The two federal agencies -- the EPA and the Forest Service -- don't recognize each other, they don't work together," Osborn claims. "In other words, the Forest Service has been unwilling to acknowledge that its mismanagement of the watersheds accelerates the movement of mine waste into populated areas, and the EPA is unwilling to talk to the Forest Service about that."
"The CdA Basin superfund area does not include the North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River [where the flooding comes from]," says Don Martin, who works for the EPA on the Coeur d'Alene Superfund site. "The basin commission approved a project to evaluate the sediment delivery from the North Fork through Clean Water Act funds awarded by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. We're going to do that project this year."
Environmental groups say it's long been known that flooding from the North Fork distributes pollution into the rivers and lakes; they wonder why the EPA and the Forest Service can't seem to acknowledge it. But even though the EPA plans to conduct an evaluation of flooding in the North Fork, Dave O'Brian, with the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, says the Forest Service isn't sure flooding is the problem.
"We certainly have looked at the science in the reports," says O'Brian. "We acknowledge the issue, but think it's being represented out of context. We completely disagree with what they're saying."
O'Brian says the Forest Service is planning to move forward with more logging projects on the watershed; according to the Forest Service's own studies, additional logging won't have an impact on the environment.
"A good example is the Iron Honey timber sale. Iron Honey does propose to remove a lot of timber, but in a responsible way that does not increase flows. We monitor our projects across the forest, and we don't even have to be there -- we can do it from our computers."
Distant monitoring, claim Osborn and Barry Rosenberg of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, is part of the problem.
"They don't monitor their timber cuts," Rosenberg says. "It's like a doctor treating a patient and never following up. The Iron Honey timber sale on the little North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River is a 1,400-acre sale in the name of 'regeneration logging.' The whole North Fork is an impaired stream; it's an area so damaged that in some places, it doesn't even run above ground."
O'Brian says the Forest Service creates 80 percent of the science used in the forest today; he rejects the claim that the Forest Service doesn't monitor the impact timber sales have on the environment.
"We modeled increased flows all the way downstream, and the increase was barely measurable. We keep reading that [flooding in the national forest] is being represented as having a dramatic effect, and since we know it's such a big issue for people of Spokane or Coeur d'Alene, we modeled it and found [future clear-cuts] will not increase flows."
Even so, on April 14, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals halted the Iron Honey timber sale for the time being, after a coalition of local environmental groups took the IPNF to court, claiming the project would continue to damage the water quality and fisheries in the North Fork.