Ed Moreen is remedial project manager for the EPA's Coeur d'Alene basin cleanup.
Q: How does this Superfund site compare to others in the nation?
A: The Coeur d’Alene Basin Superfund site is one of the largest. When Superfund was established, it was contemplated by the law makers to be used for industrial clean up sites in metropolitan areas. We’re dealing with a law that wasn’t really set up to deal with this kind of expansive territory. It’s a challenge for EPA. There is no template out there. When you enlarge the template, there are obviously new issues that you haven’t dealt with before, and so you deal with that in this particular site.
It’s certainly one of the largest in Region 10, which incorporates Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. In that four state area there are dozens of sites, probably 50 or 60 Superfund sites, that are on the national cleanup list. Our challenge here with EPA is to implement the clean up, work in unison and in partnership with the communities, and do it as cheaply and as fast as possible, and still be protective to people and the environment.
Q: Was EPA's assistance welcomed into the Silver Valley?
A: It was evident in 1995 that the communities and everybody wanted to get on with their lives. They wanted to get moving forward. Industry was gone, the good paying jobs were certainly withering away and people in the communities were concerned about the decline in population, the decline in jobs, the decline in income. They were glad to see the government in town with a commitment to move forward. The state was very commited to having this move forward at a rapid pace and wanted obviously to do things in an economic fashion as we all did.
"The former Chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe characterized this as the most beautiful toxic wasteland in America."
The magnitude of Superfund, the magnitude of the problems in the Box were much greater than really folks had grasped, and so it was very challenging to come in and get the clean up moving rapidly but have the communities be happy with the progress. They wanted to see things move forward, wanted to see rapid recovery of eco-systems, of economies and see development move forward.
I think, ten years later, the clean up in the Box is pretty well wrapped up. There are a few things that are ramping down now in yard clean ups, and as you’ve probably heard from other sources, development is underway and there is a whole lot more speculation on how much development is going to occur in the Silver Valley.
Q: Would you say that the relationship of the State of Idaho and the EPA has been pretty good in the Box?
A: Absolutely. But there was the motivation to recover what had been lost, and it was fresh in everyone’s mind. It had been less than a decade since the smelter had shut down and since most of the mines had really ramped down to previous historic operations levels. There was a real feeling of partnership, I think, among the communities and with the government leaders and certainly with the clean up crews.
Q: What about outside the Box?
A: When you go outside that Box, it is a much broader area. You are talking 150 river miles, lakes, flood plains, and it’s such a challenge to try to put that in a Box, so to speak. It requires much more patience.
We have a clean up plan on the books that requires thirty years of clean up. That’s beyond many people’s working lives, and so they have a hard time being patient with that whole process.
"There is a perception out there that Superfund equals stigma. I think whatever causes Superfund designation probably caused the stigma. "
There is certainly a sense of partnership. There is a Coeur d’Alene basin clean up commission, called “the Basin Environmental Improvement Project Commission”. EPA is a partner on that commission, as is the State of Idaho and the Tribe, the states and county commissioners from three local counties. And the real purpose of that commission is to have that kind of partnership in place to keep the local communities informed and to give them a better say in how things proceed, and I think, a more intimate relationship with the challenges in the progress of the clean up.
People like to have their own rights and are very protective of those rights, and that’s certainly something to be respected. Superfund itself is a rather invasive process. We’re doing yard clean ups in people’s residential homes. There’s not much more personal you can get than that. I think people have a right to be concerned and emotional.
I think in most cases when we get done, people are appreciative of the work we have done and the way we have handled it. As far as relationships with the government and people’s perspectives, you see a whole range on this site. You certainly see people who are happy to see us come, yet you see people who are happy to see us go. You see people who wish we would stay a lot longer.
Q: What about the response of Idaho’s elected officials?
A: What I can say is, politics is politics and people do what they have to do. It would be refreshing if they could have entered and been more supportive of the clean up, knowing the threats out here to the environment, to the children, to the people.
Q: What are the accomplishments so far that EPA can hang its hat on?
A: You saw the construction of land fills and incorporation into those landfills of those contaminated materials and the capping of those materials in a proper manner that will retain those materials in place and protect human health and environment from those.
You saw major clean up of materials along the south fork of the Coeur d’Alene river in the Smelterville area and a major clean up of contaminated materials south of I-90 near Smelterville.
You’ve got almost 1,400 residential homes in the Kellogg, Pinehurst, and Smelterville area whose yards have been cleaned up. That’s a significant achievement. You’ve got a barrier in place that protects people and the environment; and you’ve got a long term Institutional Controls plan in place that protects that remedy and insures that it stays in place and continues to protect human health and the people.
Q: This area around the old Cataldo Mission seems too beautiful to be part of Superfund.
A: The former Chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe characterized this as the most beautiful toxic wasteland in America; and that might be a fair characterization. If you look around, you’ve got beautiful water beckoning to you, Canada geese floating on the river down below. There are cut throat trout in this river.
But if you look at the banks across the way, they are laden with heavy metals, and those heavy metals are ubiquitous. All along this river, 100 million tons of it.
"We have a clean up plan on the books that requires thirty years of clean up. They have a hard time being patient with that."
We all love to play here but we need to use caution. We practice good hygiene; we recognize the risks that are there; and we prevent the transport of those metals into our bodies, into our children; and we try to protect the environment. That’s what EPA is out here to do.
Q: And what do you say to those who truly believe your concerns are exaggerated?
A: The evidence is irrefutable. If you look at the tons of lead that were going out the bag house in the 1970’s when the fire occurred, and even after they repaired the bag house, still tons of lead in the air every day. If you look at that and other metals, it’s clear that it is in the area and the ground and the water supply. And if you look at the exposure routes to people, it occurs through touching, breathing, and occasionally through eating, smoking and eating.
So you have the pathways of exposure, you have the contaminants and an audience who is living and working in the area.
There are volumes of materials available on the toxicity of lead and the effects of lead to young children. It’s not worth disputing. These are children we’re talking about. I think the fact is, kids are at risk. It’s our job at EPA to prevent that risk as much as possible.
Q: Is there a difference in the EPA’s goals and objectives when you get outside the Box?
A: Essentially, the goals are the same. We want to protect human health and the environment. And the challenge is, when you are dealing with the contamination outside of the Box, it’s rather formidable, just given the extent of contamination. The goals of the clean up plans are to be protective, and, in order to be protective, you have to implement certain tasks. In most cases that is removal and capping them and putting them in safe places where those materials can be capped and monitored for effects on the environment.
The environmental problems are essentially the same. The levels of contamination were much higher in the Box, due to the proximity to the lead smelter and the zinc plant. But the metals of concern are the same, the characteristics of those metals are the same. The levels might be lower in the river basin but the problems are essentially the same.
Q: In Kellogg there is a water treatment plant near the site of Bunker Hill mine. Where is that toxic water coming from?
A: That’s called the central treatment plant. That plant was set up and run by the Bunker Hill mine to deal with all the industrial flows that came out of the plant, the lead smelter and zinc plant and Bunker Hill mine.
The plants are no longer there and generate no waste water, so what you have today is about two million gallons a day coming out of the Bunker Hill mine that require treatment at the central treatment plant. That flow is highly toxic, usually at a very acidic range, a ph of about 2, and it carries many heavy metals. That plant is set up to deal with that water before it is discharged to surface waters. It neutralizes it and removes a large majority of the metals before it is discharged into the creek and eventually into the south fork of the Coeur d’Alene river.
Q: Will those flows from the mine ever stop?
A: The flows from the Bunker Hill mine aren’t going to stop. How to deal with those flows is the great challenge. You have a treatment plant that requires operation and maintenance funds and currently EPA is paying for those. Typically under Superfund, once a clean up is completed, the state would take on those obligations. Currently they have indicated they don’t have the financial capacity to do that, and therefore cannot enter into an agreement to continue operations.
Q: So how do you deal with those flows?
A: There are a number of proposals out there. The clean up plan originally contemplated using passive treatment cells or wetland treatment cells. What studies have revealed with those quantity flows is you cannot build an effective passive treatment system and treat the water in an effective fashion.
So you are really back at the drawing table looking for solutions that really don’t exist out there on a little or no-cost basis, and an obligation to treat water before you discharge them into the surface waters, and a state that is in a financial restraint that doesn’t have the ability to pay for the treatment requirements.
So there are no easy solutions to the problem. The problem exists. There are ongoing discussions with the EPA, as well as the mine owner, for ways to reduce those flows. There is a clean up plan in place to cut off some of the flows that might infiltrate into the mine.
There are discussions with other folks in private industry who propose to have solutions to the dilemma. Those are in early stages right now but are being reviewed and looked at from a technical and legal capacity.
Q: What if you did nothing with that acid water?
A: You would basically kill all wild life and fauna coming in contact with the presence of heavy metals and the acidity nature of the water. One of the concerns is zinc, which is very toxic to aquatic wild life. So obviously that is a concern and something that has to be removed from the water before it’s discharged.
Q: How have the mining companies behaved throughout the cleanup?
A: From their perspective, we’re an adversary; and some folks want to blame EPA for the demise of the mining industry. If you talk to miners and people in the industry, the industry itself is a very cyclical industry, and it is based on the price of metals and the ability to obtain those metals and to produce the products they need to in an economic fashion. So whether EPA is present in the Silver Valley or not, those companies are going to go about their business in an economic fashion that is best suited to their bottom line.
I have friends who work with mining companies. We work with mining companies on a daily basis. I don’t think we’re enemies, nor do I think we are necessarily friends. But we definitely are all professionals, and we all recognize one another’s position, and we try to move forward in a productive fashion in the clean up.
Q: What has been the effect of the federal dollars on the small communities?
A: There is a perception out there that Superfund equals stigma. I think a more appropriate perception is that whatever causes Superfund designation probably caused the stigma.
Super fund itself means that you come in and have the statutory authorities to carry out a clean up, and with those authorities usually come funds to get that clean up done in a proper fashion. And that, to people who want to buy property, who want to sell property, to move on or develop, provides a whole lot of surety, because the contaminants in that area have been characterized and in many cases cleaned up, or at least cleaned up and capped, so they know at least what they are dealing with.
All the indications are in place that Kellogg and Smelterville and Pinehurst are on the verge of a huge economic boom. Real estate prices are way up, properties are being purchased and rebuilt extensively. You see the trappings of economic development coming in. There are many other developers looking and knocking on the door. And if you talk to the people in the community, there is a real sense of excitement in the community right now.
Q: What kind of work will EPA be doing in the Basin in the next several years?
A: The type of work that you will see in the Coeur D’Alene Basin in the next couple of years will primarily focus on those human health risks. Residential yards is a huge priority. Those are ongoing now and there are several hundred of those being completed this summer. In addition to those there are a number of mine and mill sites that are in the queue and will be addressed. There are some that are in design right now and we’ll see construction early next year on. Those are the two primary focuses. There is also a lot of studying going on on surface water contamination and efforts to address those issues, but those are very complex and are going to be a real challenge to solve.
Q: We caught up with you today near Wallace at an old mine site. Why are you concerned about this site?
A: Here at Sisters Mine Site near Wallace, these soils contain high levels of lead; and when they become airborne they will inhale those; and that’s one of the primary routes for exposure for humans is inhaling lead contaminated soil.
This is part of the Coeur D’Alene Basin clean up which is outside of the Box, known as that area that surrounds Pinehurst, Kellogg and Smelter Ville. There are many sites like this. There are many of these sites out there in this basin. There is no way that EPA alone or DEQ alone can address all of these sites; but you do have to prioritize those that are being used and those that are presenting themselves to be particular risks to humans and try to address those first. And this is one of those sites. You can see it has been prioritized and the action is taking place now.
Q: What was your take on the major report issued this summer from the National Academy of Sciences?
A: The NAS Report came out in pre-publication form a couple of weeks ago. I think the bottom line is the report doesn’t recommend shutting down the cleanup. In fact, it recommends we continue the cleanup. So in that aspect it certainly pushes for continued cleanup and EPA continuing out here.