SHOSHONE NEWS-PRESS, Apr. 20, 2002, pp. 6, 9.

Guest Opinion 

Promise and peril:  Thoughts on the new basin super commission

By Ron Roizen
SNRC Science Committee

There was a general air of hopefulness and good feeling at the special meeting announcing the new basin super commission in Coeur d'Alene last Friday (April 12).  Gov. Dirk Kempthorne; John Iani, director of EPA's Region 10; Steve Allred, director of Idaho DEQ; Ernest Stensgar, Cd'A Tribe; county commissioners and others present all shared more or less in an up-beat and mutually congratulatory event.  The new commission's creation was portrayed from the podium more than once as a great and hard-won achievement by the parties involved and a step forward for citizens of north Idaho.

A number of concerns, however, were notable for their absence from the meeting's glowing pronouncements.  For one, the impetus for the state-designed super commission was to create a local level institution solid enough in statutory powers and funding prospects to allow the Coeur d'Alene Basin to avoid Superfund designation by the EPA.  Yet no party at the meeting specifically declared that the new commission's genesis now in effect terminated the EPA's Superfund-expanding plan.  On the contrary, all indications were that Region 10's Record of Decision (ROD) will still be published and, indeed, that this same ROD will set -- in broad terms, at least -- the new commission's clean-up agenda.  A one-sheet news release hand-out made available at the Friday meeting proudly asserted:  "Created by a state law enacted last year, the Commission will be responsible for adopting and implementing a Basin Workplan to carry out the EPA Record of Decision (ROD) due this summer."

Moreover, EPA's most recent NEWSBRIEFS newsletter, dated March, 2002, made it quite clear that Region 10 regards the Superfund-designation question as already answered -- namely by the presence or absence of "mining contamination" at Basin locations.  I quote:  "The parts of the Basin that contain mining contamination are already considered part of the Superfund site and the parts of the Basin without contamination are not part of the site."

(Incidentally, Region 10 continues to dance around the requirement that such contamination is also somehow linked by transport to the original Bunker Hill Superfund Site -- Region 10 sometimes includes the "come to be located" regulatory phrase that implies transport [as in a recent letter from John Iani to SNRC's Connie Fudge] and sometimes not [as in this NEWSBRIEFS].)

The daunting prospect is that we, the citizens of the Basin, will find ourselves under both an EPA Superfund designation and the sweeping powers of a State-authored commission originally designed to obviate the necessity for Superfund.  In theory at least, this could turn out to be the worst of both worlds.

Also conspicuously absent from the topics mentioned at Friday's commission launching meeting was the upcoming National Academy of Sciences review of EPA-sponsored science for the CDAB.  Apparently neither EPA nor DEQ is losing much sleep over the possibility that significant segments of that science -- particularly as relates to human health and yard remediation -- may be torpedoed, or at least badly dented, by the NAS scientific panel.  One measure of that disposition on EPA/DEQ's parts was offered in the news release hand-out.  The release's final sentence makes clear that "implementation of the state's yard remediation pilot project" is planned to commence this summer.  It would seem that the new commission's concept of "local control" is limited to the selection of implementation options and does not stretch to include the much more important issues of problem definition and overall prioritization.

I listened very carefully to Mr. Iani's several remarks hoping to catch some sense of just how much autonomy he invested in the new institution.  At one point he suggested that the new commission would have some say in setting remediation priorities.  The EPA is beholden to federal statutes, he observed, but the new commission was "a unique step" -- which was to say, one guesses, that we'll all have to wait and see how well the new institutional framework fares in relation to differences across local, State, and EPA aims and priorities.

Mr. Allred of DEQ was quick to add, however, that there were some imperatives that could not be changed.

My own sense is that it is likely to be Mr. Allred's dogged sense of purpose that will promote and drive EPA's ROD.  Mr. Allred sits on the new commission representing the state.  It will be recalled that DEQ contracted with TerraGraphics to conduct the human health risk assessment that lies behind the massive yard remediation plan that is shared by both the federal and state plans for the upper basin.

If past experience may be our guide, then Mr. Allred may be expected to turn often to the argument that EPA will simply re-exert its control and bypass the commission if and when the commission's members wander too far from the ROD's dictates.  Hence, the game of "good cop, bad cop" that DEQ has employed so often in the past -- i.e., suggesting that if DEQ's plan is poor, then at least it is better than EPA's -- will continue uninterrupted in the context of the new commission.

On November 5, 2001, Gov. Kempthorne made his unforgettable speech at Wallace High School, which began with his statement that he was on the verge of asking EPA to leave the State of Idaho.  As it happened, that speech occurred only days after the 2001 blood-lead survey results for inside 'the box" and the wider Basin were released in Kellogg.  The wider Basin's results showed a 6% exceedance rate -- meaning that the EPA's roughly 90 million dollar yard remediation plan would address a would-be problem occurring in only a handful of Basin children.  (Incidentally, the science committee has grave reservations about these surveys though it recognizes nonetheless that their results play an important part in EPA pronouncements -- including, for example, the Proposed Plan.)

The Wallace occasion was too exciting and the governor's remarks too welcome for anyone to object that the State's yard remediation plan -- essentially identical to the EPA's except cheaper and, in theory at least, voluntary -- was rendered just as superfluous as the EPA's.

No mention of either (a) the dilemma caused by the low exceedance rate reported in the 2001 survey or (b) the encouraging news that the National Academy of Sciences took local objections to EPA/DEQ science seriously enough to move forward on the prospect of a full review were made at Friday's meeting in Coeur d'Alene.

Afterward, it occurred to me that the event signaled less the triumph of local control and more the renewed alliance of EPA and DEQ in buttressing the ROD's beleaguered human health agenda.  Let us hope that the county commissioners on the new commission can stand their ground and that the distinguished scientists on NAS's panel-to-be may yet bring our authentically local concerns to bear on the Basin's future.