Basin hearing may determine valley’s future

Editor’s note:  Published May 18, 2002 in the Shoshone News-Press.

ship of fools

Ship of Fools (IMAGE CREDIT:  pinterest via Google Images)

An important public meeting is scheduled for this coming Monday, May 20, 7 p.m. in Kellogg at the Idaho Dept. of Health and Welfare (35 Wildcat Way, Suite B).

The need for this hastily arranged meeting arose at the first meeting of the new “New Basin Commission” (“NBC,” whose formal name is the Basin Environmental Improvement Project Commission), held on the afternoon of May 3 at the ranger station in Silverton.  The NBC is comprised of one representative from the state of Idaho, the federal government, the Cd’A Tribe, the state of Washington and (one each) Shoshone, Kootenai and Benewah counties.

At this May 3 meeting, Steve Allred – director of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the NBC commissioner representing the state of Idaho – presented a draft proposal to the NBC.  This document offered a variety of potential cleanup-related projects that the NBC might, in turn, submit to EPA in order to secure some $2 million in funding that EPA has made available as start-up monies for the NBC.  Mr. Allred’s draft proposal offered brief narratives descriptions of a half-dozen cleanup projects or expenditures.    

The two largest of these proposed projects concerned yard sampling and remediation in the Cd’A basin.  The first proposes soil sampling at 300 basin yards (at $2,500 per yard, for a total cost of $750,000); the second proposes soil removal and replacement at 30 additional yards (at $27,500 per yard, totaling $825,000).

Together, the two yard-oriented projects amount to $1,575,000 or just under 80 percent of the $2 million EPA has made potentially available.  Sherry Krulitz, Shoshone County’s representative to the NBC and newly-elected NBC chair, balked at the notion of the NBC’s passing judgment on Mr. Allred’s yard-heavy draft proposal to EPA before the public had been consulted – and hence the scheduling of Monday’s meeting in Kellogg for gathering public input.

There is a second potential focus for Monday’s meeting as well.  Mr. Allred and DEQ placed an ad in the “legals section” of this newspaper on May 8 – the very morning of the NBC’s first meeting.  DEQ’s ad asked for bids from contractors willing and able to carry out a yard-remediation project in the basin this summer.  This DEQ-initiated project, according to Mr. Allred, may be pursued independently by the state – that is, even if the NBC should decline to endorse the yard-related elements of DEQ’s draft proposal described previously.

DEQ has an appropriation of $1 million from the Idaho Legislature for FY 2003 for the support of this independent yard project.  The DEQ’s potentially unilateral yard-focused plan raises for the first time the issue of whether the fledgling NBC has overall authority for the basin cleanup enterprises or whether, on the other hand, the mere availability of independent funds for basin projects allows DEQ to make, in effect, an end-run around NBC authority and control.

Mr. Allred has characterized these new yard initiatives in the basin as benign and inoffensive to basin citizens.  He uses such terms as “voluntary,” “pilot program,” “holistic,” and “experimental” to characterize his user-friendly approach and its would-be political palatability.  Mr. Allred’s position appears to be that the “manner in which” a yard sampling and remediation project is conducted effectively answers or renders non-relevant the history of significant citizen and scientific concerns that have been raised about yard remediation in the basin over the past 18 months or more.

The SNRC Science Committee does not share this view.  Here are some of our reasons:

  1. The claim that a significant lead-occasioned human health problem exists in the basin rests on science that is vigorously disputed by the science committee and others.
  2. The issues raised in that dispute have shown themselves to be sufficiently credible to engage the staff at the National Academy of Sciences, and a review of said science by NAS has cleared this week cleared its first hurdle on the path toward becoming a reality. Since (as both the governor and the lt. governor have said) there is no public health emergency in the basin, it makes sense to delay any yard plan until the completion of the NAS review or the determination that it will or will not be conducted.
  3. The focus on yards ignores the very favorable results of the 2001 blood lead survey, which suggested that the basin was either very close to meeting the EPA’s blood lead population standard or meets it already.
  4. The yard plan also ignores the Idaho Department of Health subcommittee’s recommendation to wait five years to see if apparent trends in effect solve whatever alleged lead-health problem may exist in the basin.
  5. Both the DEQ’s draft proposal and its unilateral yard projects in effect bypass the scores of pages of critical comments (scientific and otherwise) submitted by basin citizens in response to the EPA’s proposed plan – thus ignoring once again the hundreds of hours of thought and effort basin citizens invested in the prospect of being heard.
  6. There are 700 yards still awaiting remediation inside “The Box” – and hence it would make altogether good sense to finish those yards before starting the wider basin project.
  7. The proposed projects are heavier on yard sampling (300 yards), which emphasis will in all likelihood label yards exceeding EPA’s controversial soil lead standard as Superfund sites, thus requiring the long process of remediation and delisting by EPA.
  8. Even if all of the DEQ’s proposed yard plan were accomplished in the summer of 2002, only about 3 percent of the total projected number of yards destined for remediation in the EPA’s proposed plans will be completed. In other words, a very small bite will be taken out of a very big apple.  Would it not make better sense to tackle smaller projects with good prospects of completion instead of completing 3 percent of a task that may end up being judged unnecessary by the NAS review?
  9. However “user-friendly” the plan’s structure, the commencement of yard sampling may establish a climate of fear in which homeowners feel compelled to enlist in the project because a neighbor has done so – say, for example, because the fact of the yard project may create an artificial real estate advantage for the participating homeowner over the nonparticipating homeowner. Scientific issues should be resolved before a slippery slope of justifiable citizen fears drives yard projects.
  10. The tightening of government budgets and the current climate of fiscal watchfulness make this an ill-advised time for launching an expensive project of unknown or contested public health or environmental value.
  11. Finally, human and yard remediation were the hottest hot-button issue in the wider basin – the issues that arguably launched the legislation that created the NBC and its ideal of shared local, state, tribal and federal control. In that light, it does a disservice to the NBC and to the citizens of Shoshone County for yards to become the lead-off and largest project  for this commission’s first summer of operation – and still more a disservice for DEQ to pursue the same project unilaterally and without the NBC’s blessing.

Obviously, Monday evening’s meeting promises to be an important and fateful event in both the basin’s history and the history of the fledgling commission.  We urge everyone – whatever his or her views – to be in attendance and make his or her voice heard.

— SNRC Science Committee

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