Letters from the West

Idaho conservationists win nationwide victory

North Idaho's Lake Coeur d'Alene is part of the 3,700-square-mile Coeur d'Alene Basin, where the Environmental Protection Agency is working with Idaho to clean up contamination problems caused by a century of mining under the Superfund law.
North Idaho's Lake Coeur d'Alene is part of the 3,700-square-mile Coeur d'Alene Basin, where the Environmental Protection Agency is working with Idaho to clean up contamination problems caused by a century of mining under the Superfund law.

When you think about the word “Superfund,” you think about some big mess somewhere.

Idaho’s Superfund sites include old mines like the Blackbird near Salmon, oil spills, the chemical factories, creosote plants and rail yards. The Coeur d’Alene Basin is widely polluted with heavy metals.

These places represent problems of the past we are left with today. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require industries to pay into a fund to help cover the costs of orphaned contaminated sites — places where the responsible party has gone out of business.

The law also told EPA to develop rules requiring individual companies that handled toxic materials to secure bonds to cover future cleanup — in other words, arrange cleanup ahead of time. But the EPA failed to enact the second part.

Until now.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia issued a far-reaching ruling recently ordering EPA to complete rules to set up the bonding procedure. The Idaho Conservation League brought the case to court, represented by Earthjustice, a national nonprofit environmental law firm, along with Earthworks, Sierra Club and others.

This decision will have an impact on Idaho’s mining industry, but not as much as you would think. Most of the largest mines are on federal land and already required to put up bonds. But there is less bonding required on state and private lands.

Idaho’s mining industry has become better at leaving fewer messes, because it knows it will have to pay the price at the end. If they can show they have less chance to cause future pollution, they get to pay smaller bonds. The system isn’t perfect, but if the EPA follows the order, miners, chemical companies and others whose hazardous materials could pollute the land and water would have an incentive to reduce the risk of a mess.

“There is a reason why landlords require security and cleaning deposits from renters,” said Justin Hayes, Idaho Conservation League program manager. “It creates an incentive for the renter to treat the apartment with respect and clean up before they move out. And if they don’t, the landlord has the deposit money to make things right.”

The court order lays out a schedule for the EPA to develop rules to require bonds for industries with the greatest potential for creating cleanup sites: hardrock mining, chemical manufacturing, petroleum and coal products manufacturing, and electric power generation.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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