The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its Draft Coeur d'Alene Basin Ecological Risk Assessment (ECORA) at the end of August. As expected, the draft's overall conclusion is that high concentrations of heavy metals are pervasive in the soil, sediment and surface water in the Basin, and that these chemicals pose substantial risks to the plants, animals and people that inhabit the area.
"You have to remember this is a draft document, so basically we shouldn't draw final conclusions from it," says Anne Dailey, the EPA environmental scientist who is in charge of the ECORA. "The way these draft documents work is that we are going to get some input back, and then we'll try to come up with some conclusions."
The review period for the ECORA runs through Oct. 6.
"We've already had input from a lot of different people, basically anybody we could think off," says Dailey. "Also people in the mining business, we've sent out a lot of documents to them and some have been at our work group meetings, but I wouldn't say there has been a substantial amount of participation on their behalf."
But miners have plenty of opinions on the ECORA, its conclusions and the EPA's treatment of their businesses.
"The EPA is drawing its conclusions on false premises. There is precious little data to back up the things they are saying," says Bob Hopper, who's owned and operated the Bunker Hill Mine in Kellogg for nine years. "All I'm saying is: Give me the data. Show me the results, show me the samples and show me where you got them -- because the EPA can't."
The field study that laid the ground for the ECORA is a very detailed sampling and analysis of more than 80 different animal and plant species, which were first determined to be representative for all the other thousands of species that inhabit the Coeur d'Alene Basin. Furthermore, says Dailey, some species were considered special-status, species that include federally listed endangered species and state listed sensitive plant species, or species that have a high cultural value, such as water potatoes. The results from these species where weighted heavier in the final conclusions.
Soil, sediment and surface water were evaluated by the EPA, but groundwater wasn't because animals and plants rarely come in contact with it. The plant risk assessment was based on the amount of heavy metals actually found in the plants.
Arsenic, cadmium, copper, zinc and lead were the chemicals of potential ecological concern (COPECs) that the EPA tested for in both soil, sediment and surface water, and sediment was also tested for silver and mercury.
In all of the 24 bird species tested, risks to health and survival posed by at least one metal in at least one area of the Basin was found in all species. The same goes for the 18 mammals that were tested, with the only difference being that birds were at risk from specific COPECs (lead, zinc and cadmium); no single COPEC stands out as a dominant risk for the mammals.
"Nobody has ever really looked at it that closely, with all these species," says Michelle Nanni, spokeswoman for the Lands Council. "And the EPA is not just looking at mortality rates. They are looking at the risks to the creatures that are chronically exposed, and they are showing the impact even at a low level of exposure."
But Hopper is not convinced the ECORA is in any way scientifically valid, and he accuses the Lands Council and the EPA of ganging up and trying to influence legislators and policy-makers both in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene to take a stand against mining.
Actually, the Lands Council sued the EPA in June, together with the Idaho Conservation League, over the EPA's failure to issue total maximum daily load water quality plans for the Coeur d'Alene River System. Earlier on, both the Lands Council and several other environmental groups appealed to the EPA to take steps to enforce the Clean Water Act in the Basin, because they claimed the state of Idaho was reluctant to do so.
But Hopper stands his ground, refusing to believe that the only thing the Lands Council and the EPA has in common is the goal of protecting the environment.
"The EPA has an agenda, you bet they do," he says. "They are out to shut down all the mines, and there are so few of us left now they are getting ready for the final kill," says the miner, who mines silver, lead and zinc. "The EPA always gets what it wants."
For now, what the EPA wants is to come out with a feasibility study listing several cleanup options for the Basin by the end of the year.
Both Nanni and Dailey agree that this is where the ECORA is going to be of the greatest help.
"This draft really makes a strong case for cleanup," says Nanni. "There are going to be many different cleanup proposals that'll come up, because people have many different interests, but now we have a detailed study we can turn to. That's really going to help us."