Monday, November 18, 2002

Idaho

Sewer, water costs could bust Burke
Faced with EPA order, community still without basic services gropes for solutions

Winston Ross
Staff writer

photo
Liz Kishimoto - The Spokesman-Review
Water for a number of homes in Burke Canyon is piped directly from one of the abandoned mines.

BURKE, Idaho _ A conspicuous stretch of white PVC pipe snakes its way down the Burke Canyon hillside, past the black shattered planks of wood from abandoned mines.

On one end, the pipe disappears into a mine shaft. On the other, it feeds into Bob Sizemore's kitchen sink, in a blue-gray trailer home. Sizemore drinks this water.

And he's fine with that.

"The EPA tested this water," says Sizemore, decked out in denim, puffing a cigarette. "They said it's some of the finest water in the valley."

Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered a Burke water system to comply with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, by installing a filter in Sawmill Gulch. That could cost residents on that system $19,000 apiece. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and the Panhandle Health District are pushing for a multimillion-dollar sewer line. Residents of half of the homes here simply flush their sewage into Canyon Creek. The sewer line p
rice tag is $48,000 per each of the 79 residences.

The cheapest option for sewer is $3.5 million. That's a staggering sum in the Silver Valley, where the median housing value is $30,000. In Burke Canyon, that number drops to $12,000. Almost half of the 79 homes are unoccupied. Only 19 of those homes are on the water system. The rest, like Sizemore's, are on their own. Health officials don't know where some people get their drinking water.

Something has to be done, says John Tindall of the Idaho DEQ. But residents don't necessarily have to shoulder all the economic work.

"No one is asking anybody in Burke right now to pay for these kinds of costs," says Tindall, a DEQ engineer. "No one is asking these people to fork over this kind of money."

But Tindall and others maintain that too many years have gone by with an antiquated, illegal practice simply overlooked. Somehow, they're determined to make improvements this time.

"It's an inadequate, substandard method of treating your water," Tindall said.

On Wednesday, Tindall will gather with county officials, the EPA, the health district and the water district to hold the third public meeting on the issue this year. They'll present the findings of a recent report, and ask the public for direction.

The public surely will ask the question that's plagued this canyon for nearly 30 years: Where's the money to pay for it?

"I think they're nuts," says Chuck Tirpik, an outspoken critic of government agencies in general. "A lot of these people don't even have $20. I realize raw sewage shouldn't be dumping into the creek. But 50 years ago, there were 5,000 people here. Every one of them dumped into the creek. The water quality isn't that bad.

"I think the EPA is just trying to drive people out of the canyon. They're all government agencies. They're all working together."

That last sentence is true. But it's for an important cause, argues Tindall. Forty-one homes discharge their sewage directly into Canyon Creek, according to a recent report. That could mean 150 gallons a day per house. If all 41 houses are occupied, 6,000 gallons of raw sewage a day could be sliding into the creek, mingling with other harmful substances from Hecla's idled Star Mine, which turns the stream bed red.

When tested, only three of 15 samples showed bacteria levels that exceeded water quality standards. People don't drink the water from Canyon Creek. But they do swim in it. If such levels were found in a public swimming area, the pool would be emptied.

No one remembers illnesses associated with the suspect water. But it could, conceivably, cause salmonella, giardia, hepatitis, typhoid or cholera, Tindall said.

"The standards are set based on the potential for these kinds of things to happen," he said. "Many of these rules are set up for people that have weak immune systems. Those are the ones who'll get a case of real bad dysentery."

Technically, Tirpik isn't a resident of Burke Canyon anymore. He says the snow got to him -- 17 feet in all last season. His bad back simply won't help him shovel.

So Tirpik put a For Sale sign on his house in Burke, one of the handful of tiny townships in the canyon, and moved to Osburn. He's not optimistic about getting the $50,000 asking price. Banks won't loan money on houses with unapproved water and sewer systems. Tirpik's sewage empties into the creek.

"It'll be right up next to impossible" to sell, he said.

Tirpik and others agree that the sewer issues should be fixed. He's a realist, however, and can't imagine where anyone might find the money. The problem should have been fixed decades ago, when grants paid 90 percent and more of the cost to install sewer lines in the rest of Shoshone County.

The health district's Jerry Cobb, who worked on that effort, said one problem after another resulted in Burke Canyon being left behind.

Small townships were spread far apart, increasing the cost per resident. Plus, many of the property owners were mining companies, where easement access had to be granted by a corporation board in New York. With deadlines for grant money approaching, officials gave up on Burke.

Now the health district could sue property owners, because the discharge is illegal.

"Yeah, what they're doing is illegal," Cobb said. "We know it, they know it, a judge certainly would know it. But you can't get blood out of a turnip.

"This is a community problem."

The water system was supposed to be upgraded, too, Tirpik said, in 1995. That's why his rates went from $8 a month to $38 a month. Didn't happen. Now they want more money?

"I think everybody wants there to be sewer," he said. "Especially because it was already supposed to be here."

He suspects this latest attempt is simply one to force residents out -- as the EPA considers options for mine waste cleanup, it proposed buying out the people who live here only last year.

That notion doesn't sit well with some residents in Burke.

There are three trains of thought on the subject of leaving, says Cobb, who was around in the 1980s, when the rest of the county got sewer service. Some people never want to leave the canyon. Others are willing, and most simply haven't made up their minds.

"Any time they have a meeting to discuss it, there's this big emotional rock-throwing," Cobb said. "A lot of people in the middle aren't saying anything, because they don't want to be picked on by either side."

Cobb thinks the sewer, the water issues and the Superfund cleanup should all be considered together, since they're all related.

"Why not just put them all in a hat, and resolve them jointly? Compare costs, remediation A versus remediation B."

Money will remain the biggest clog, however. Officials are holding out hope that money might be made available in Congress, with a rally from U.S. Sen. Larry Craig. The senator didn't confirm as much this week, but he did say this:

"As the valley looks toward economic recovery, Burke Canyon will play an important part, as developable land is at a premium, So we need to look beyond a few homes without sewer towards what our future infrastructure needs will be in Burke Canyon."

Bob Sizemore is renting the lots that his trailer sits on now, so he doesn't own the septic tank system below ground. On disability, because he broke his back three times, Sizemore can't even afford to fix the leaks in the PVC pipe from the mine shaft.

So he lays scraps of metal atop the holes, to cut down on the spray. He definitely couldn't afford thousands of dollars for a new sewer system, he says.

"If it comes to that," he says with a long face, "I'm moving."

Winston Ross can be reached at (208) 765-7132, or by e-mail at winstonr@spokesman.com.


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