Environmental extremism

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In Idaho politics, the word “environmentalist” is almost always preceded with the adjective “extreme” – in Gem State political verbiage, there seems to be no other kind.

But in the terms of that narrative, consider two of the most significant Idaho news stories from last week, both very much about environmental concerns.

One, a subject of hot Panhandle discussion for many years, is the Coeur d’Alene River Basin cleanup, a federal-based (Environmental Protection Agency) action ongoing since the 80’s. For all the dispute, there’s been little disagreement on the existence of the problem, contamination from decades of mining in the Silver Valley. The EPA describes its effort simply: “The cleanup is part of a continuing effort to reduce risks to people’s health and the environment from heavy metals.”

The work has come in phases and parts, and it has been imperfect. For a large area around the Coeur d’Alene River’s south fork and the Bunker Hill mine area, a “record of decision” was released in 2002. There were complaints and comments, a lot of them, about 6,700. These have had effect: “In response to widespread public request, EPA has changed the scope of the RODA. The cleanup’s cost has been reduced by nearly half, to about $635 million. The cleanup’s projected time frame has been reduced to about 30 years. In response to public concern about the cost of the cleanup and technical challenges, EPA removed construction of a river liner from the cleanup plan. This reduced the cost of the plan by nearly $300 million. To address contamination seeping into the river in the Osburn and Kellogg areas, we will instead collect and treat groundwater from those areas. Many public comments asked EPA to reduce the number of mine and mill sites slated for cleanup. EPA agrees that it makes sense to focus on the highest priority sites with the greatest potential impact on water quality. EPA has reduced the number of sites to be cleaned up from 345 to 145.”

For all of the EPA’s local reputation as opaque, unreachable, un-knowable and bureaucratic, it appears to have been moved quite a bit.

The other Idaho environmental news last week concerned a mining operation proposed for the Boise Basin area near Idaho City, an area that has seen plenty of mining over the years.

Mosquito Gold, a mining firm from Canada, has proposed in the CuMo Exploration Project to mine for molybdenum in the area (political junkies may remember the fight over another proposed moly mine in central Idaho 40 years ago), building about 10 miles of roads and sinking hundreds of drill holes around the Boise River headwaters. That would be only the beginning of what might transform a large ad beautiful backwoods area. The Idaho Conservation League described it (in terms similar to those seen elsewhere): “This drilling project is the next step toward constructing what the company hopes will be one of the largest open pit molybdenum mines in the world.” The U.S. Forest Service gave its okay.
Is opposition to a massive open-pit mine necessarily extremist? At least under present terms, Federal District Judge Edward Lodge, no riotous liberal, appeared not to think so. In last week’s decision, he said that the Forest Service’s approval was arbitrary and capricious and that at the least, study and analysis of groundwater in the area is needed.

Maybe some review is needed to consider what’s extreme, and what isn’t.

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