COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho -- Since the 1880s a large area at the northeast boundary of the Coeur d'Alene reservation called Silver Valley has been the home to literally hundreds of heavy metal mines. The pollution is extensive and the tribe has been trying for years to see that the area is cleaned up.
A bill introduced on Oct. 30 by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and supported by the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, asks the federal government for $250 million for an initial 20-year cleanup of Silver Valley mining operations.
The affected area covers scores of mines that until the 1960s had dumped polluted waste into the Coeur D'Alene River that flows directly through the reservation. Though active mines were required to build holding ponds in the mid-'60s much of the polluted runoff was still coming from abandoned mines.
Wildlife and livestock were affected and higher than normal amounts of lead were found in reservation children's blood. Silver Valley was derisively nicknamed the "Valley of Death" by locals.
The area still has a few working mines that must now adhere to strict environmental standards. The issue is the majority of non-working mines that are relics from less environmentally aware times.
In 1980, a 21-square-mile area was deemed a Superfund site -- listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as needing federal dollars for environmental cleanup. Coeur d'Alene press secretary Bob Bostwick said the problem remains as to what should be done about the affected areas outside the Superfund area.
Bostwick said that a 43-mile area of the Coeur d'Alene River, including a chain of some of Idaho's most scenic lakes, have also been affected by mine runoff, including a stew of metals such as lead, zinc and cadmium. Also affected is the Spokane River which flows west into the Columbia River system.
Crapo's bill would authorize funds for an area much larger than the 21-square miles protected by Superfund and may encompass an area of more than 2,000-square miles. In addition it would not absolve the mining companies of all responsibility.
The Coeur d'Alene tribe originally balked at the idea of involving federal tax dollars and thought that the individual mining companies should be responsible for the cleanup. However, Bostwick said the tribe had a change of heart when it examined all the issues related to mining.
"In the first and second world wars, mining and smelting were critical to the nation. These mines had to crank out materials constantly," Bostwick said.
He added the mining industry has made significant contributions to the overall economy in Idaho and that the American taxpayers "owe a debt" to the mining companies by helping them to pay for the cleanup of mining areas.
Meanwhile Crapo's office said the bill was introduced to prevent the spread of the Superfund site, which the senator thinks is an inefficient government program. Instead the bill would authorize federal appropriations to go directly to the site.
Crapo's press secretary Linsay Nothern said his boss feels that too much money goes to bureaucratic administration with Superfund and that bureaucracy would be eliminated by this project that would effectively expand the scope of cleanup without expanding the Superfund area.
A companion bill was authorized in the Idaho Legislature the same day Crapo's bill was introduced. The state bill effectively makes the state of Idaho a financial partner in the cleanup. Since the state of Washington is also in the affected area, Nothern said he is not sure how it will react to the cleanup.
Finally Nothern said emphatically that mining companies are not off the hook.
"The senator has been taking some heat because some environmental groups are saying that we're trying to get the mining companies off the hook. This is absolutely not."
Nothern said it was Crapo's opinion that if the mining companies were to be the sole source of revenue from the cleanup the process might be tied up in courts for a long time to the detriment of the cleanup effort. He also questioned how much discretionary income that mining companies might actually have to effect the kind of cleanup necessary.
The bill faces a long run in the Senate and Crapo's office said it has an uncertain future because of financial fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks.