A savvy politician, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne knew he'd get a warm reception in the Silver Valley last week when he blasted the Environmental Protection Agency as a "nonresponsive" bureaucracy.
He wasted no time in doing so.
In the second paragraph of a five-page speech at the EPA hearing on the Coeur d'Alene Basin cleanup, Kempthorne said: "I have become so frustrated with the EPA that I'm on the verge of inviting the EPA to leave Idaho."
The Republican governor's fighting words earned him two standing ovations from the sympathetic Wallace audience. They also overshadowed a substantive speech that challenged the EPA to cooperate with the state of Idaho, in developing a common-sense approach to basin cleanup.
EPA officials would be foolish to ignore Kempthorne's comments, and the feeling among communities in the Coeur d'Alene watershed that the EPA's cleanup proposal goes too far, is too expensive and lasts too long. At the same time, the governor and his constituents must realize they aren't the only ones with an interest in basin cleanup. Tailings from 100 years of Silver Valley mining washed into streams of the Coeur d'Alene basin, leaving deposits of toxic metals in a number of "hot spots" from Mullan to Long Lake, including sediments beneath the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's portion of Lake Coeur d'Alene.
Unless the EPA, state officials and other interest groups cooperate on a cleanup plan, a federal court will decide the scope and cost of the work. That would take control of the process away from the affected parties and waste more money on litigation.
Kempthorne made three points that the EPA should consider carefully:
•Superfund boundaries should not be expanded to include Lake Coeur d'Alene and more downstream communities, such as Coeur d'Alene. Cleanup can occur without expanded boundaries. Many believe the designation prevented the Silver Valley from rebounding economically and would torpedo Kootenai County's important tourism industry.
"Many see the Superfund program as an onerous burden leading to loss of jobs, overstatement of environmental problems and inefficient use of taxpayer dollars," Kempthorne said.
•EPA's estimated $1.3 billion price tag for future basin cleanup is unrealistic. Kempthorne noted that the state, the mining companies and Superfund -- combined -- don't have that much money. Idaho would pay 10 percent of a cleanup's cost.
•Local citizens, governments and tribes should have a seat at the table where cleanup decisions are made. Since dollars are scarce, those most affected should be able to ensure that they are wisely spent. To achieve this goal, Kempthorne pointed out, the state of Idaho established the Basin Environmental Improvement Project Commission. The EPA has ignored an invitation to join the commission, and that is an arrogant mistake.
A final hearing on the EPA's plan is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Monday in the commissioners' room at the Spokane Public Works Building. There, the EPA ought to hear that interests in Washington state, like those in Idaho, rightfully want a place at the table.
D.F. Oliveria/For the editorial board