Agency officials had differing reactions on Thursday to a mining company's assertion that the new $635 million plan for mining waste cleanup in the Upper Basin will be ineffective.
"That's not true," said Terry Harwood, executive director of the Coeur d'Alene Basin Environmental Improvement Project Commission. "Anybody who says it will not be effective, that's a far-fetched statement."
But Hanady Kader, spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency, stated that the federal entity will be weighing the concerns submitted in a letter by Asarco, LLC.
"We'll be reviewing it and considering the information in it," Kader stated.
Asarco LLC, whose settlement dollars are largely funding the cleanup, argued in a letter this week to the EPA that the north fork of the Coeur d'Alene River will continue to be polluted by the contaminated rail lines once run by Union Pacific Railroad.
That contamination source is not adequately addressed in the recently approved Interim Record of Decision Amendment, states the letter from Asarco attorney Gregory Evans.
The letter also presses that the conversion of the polluted rails into recreation paths in the Rails-to-Trails project didn't fully address the problem.
"We are concerned that EPA will waste large sums of money cleaning up downstream areas that will simply be recontaminated by these abandoned lines during heavy storms and floods," it reads.
The mining company also reminds that Asarco is "a significant stakeholder" in the cleanup, as it contributed $482 million to mining-waste remediation throughout the Coeur d'Alene Basin.
Harwood called the company's complaint "a red herring."
The remaining contamination from metals hauled by the railroad over 100 years is only minor, Harwood said.
At least, it's minor compared to the far more egregious sources of mining waste addressed in the new ROD, he said, like at the Nine Mile drainage, Canyon Creek and the Bunker Hill Box, the 21-square-mile area including Kellogg, Wardner, Smelterville and Pinehurst.
"Four percent of the total investment is going to (take care of) 40 percent of the metals coming into the south fork," Harwood said of the approved cleanup projects in those areas. "By saying that's not going to do anything because of the railroad grade, that's a far-fetched statement."
He does have some concern about the railroad grade, he acknowledged, "but that's nothing compared to the Box and Canyon Creek."
There are still other significant contamination sources to consider before cleaning the rail lines, Harwood said, like the heavily polluted bed of the Coeur d'Alene River between Cataldo and Rose Lake.
"From a human health standpoint, I have more concern about the sediment the river's moving around all the time," he said, adding that a plan is being developed to address that issue.
He couldn't say if the contaminated rail lines will ever be totally addressed, he added.
"Surely you're not going to dig the railroad grade up and haul it off. My God, where would you put it?" Harwood said. "Some of (the contamination) is very difficult to deal with."