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Cleanup Money Flowing into Silver Valley

Fri, 05/18/2012 - 6:01am
the Associated Press

KELLOGG, Idaho (AP) — Money from a $460 million trust fund intended to clean up mining pollution is starting to flow into Idaho's Silver Valley.

About $8.5 million will be spent this year from the Asarco trust, which was created as part of the company's 2009 bankruptcy settlement to pay for heavy metals pollution in the valley.

Meanwhile, efforts to clean up a century of mining pollution may not take as long or be as expensive as initially proposed, officials for the Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday during a quarterly update at the agency's Coeur d'Alene office.

The EPA made an effort to "scale this back and focus on the things that people care most about," said Bill Adams, Coeur d'Alene team leader with the EPA.

This year's Superfund cleanup work targets historic mine operations that leach heavy metals into the Coeur d'Alene River system, said Dan Meyer, the Asarco trust's senior project manager.

Beginning in the late 1800s, Burke and Nine Mile canyons were home to dozens of silver and lead mines and ore processing operations. Leftover waste rock was pumped directly into creeks that flow into the Coeur d'Alene River.

Now the creeks and flood plains are choked with mine tailings. As water filters through those rocks, it picks up lead, zinc, cadmium, arsenic and other metals.

Water flowing out of Nine Mile Canyon has about 20 times as much lead and zinc as the state's water quality standard, Adams said. Stretches of the creek are sterile because the high minerals content is toxic to fish and other aquatic creatures, he said.

The year's work will focus on defining the extent of the pollution and designing cleanup plans, Meyer said. The actual cleanup work will come later.

Asarco was a longtime mining operator in Idaho's Silver Valley. Trust managers anticipate funding $8 million to $10 million worth of cleanup work annually during the Asarco trust's early years, to allow the principal to continue to grow.

In other Superfund news, Silver Valley communities will receive an estimated $100 million over the next six to eight years to fix deteriorating roads and culverts that contribute to the spread of heavy metals.

The money will bring an influx of construction work to the small towns while reducing the risk of exposure to metals, said Terry Harwood, executive director of the Basin Environmental Improvement.

Many of the valley's roads were built on mine tailings, so potholes can become pollution sources. Officials have documented rust-colored liquid from oxidized metals oozing out of cracked asphalt, Harwood said. In addition, the gravel used for some unpaved roads was crushed mine tailings.

Adams said an amendment to the Record of Decision that reduced the cost and length of the cleanup could be signed by July.

In the amendment, cost for the cleanup projects comes in at $635 million, down from $1.34 billion. The number of sites targeted for cleanup, 145, is down from 345. And the 90 years projected to complete remediation is down to 30 years.

"At this point, those numbers are pretty solid," Adams said.

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