Basin plan center stage

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Question: What do you get when you unveil a 2,200-page plan that will cost an estimated $1.34 billion and take about a century to complete?

Answer: Questions.

Lots and lots of them.

The plan we're referring to comes from Washington, D.C., and does involve health, but it might not be the one you immediately thought of. This is the federal Environmental Protection Agency's outline for cleanup projects along the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River and its tributaries, problems created by more than a century of Silver Valley mining.

At least there's light at the beginning of the tunnel. On Wednesday, at the Shoshone Medical Center facility in Smelterville, the public can ask questions and share their feelings with EPA officials. An open house will take place from 5 to 6:30 p.m., then the public meeting will take place from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

As it now stands, that's the last word the public will verbalize on the massive proposal, although written comments will be accepted through Aug. 25. And therein lies the most pressing problem.

This newspaper has, over the past eight years, published tens of thousands of words on the broad issue of basin cleanup, from public meetings in the Silver Valley to investigative stories on how the EPA's own ombudsman was seriously marginalized. On our opinion pages we have steadfastly maintained that some cleanup is necessary, but the EPA appears determined to put out a match with a fire hose. And that fire hose will cost taxpayers a fortune while government does what it always seems to do best: Self-perpetuate and grow.

However, this newspaper is also on record as having declared that if qualified scientists thoroughly studied the issues and determined that extensive work was needed, we'd respect that. And five years ago that's essentially what happened, when the National Academy of Sciences did indeed support many of the EPA's assertions.

So we respectfully leave addressing scientific concerns to those experts while asking that the public's concerns, what this whole thing is supposed to be about, take center stage.

The EPA is acting like it has a smoldering ingot in its pocket, so intent does it seem to be in committing more than a billion dollars right now. That's one of the public's top concerns: Who really is going to end up paying for this, and how? To whatever extent the state might be held accountable, Idahoans will be the subject of an unfunded federal mandate.

As a starting point we urge the EPA not just to extend the public comment period well beyond the August deadline, but push it to the middle of next year so that the Idaho Legislature can fully study the agency's plan next session and figure out how to pay the state's share.

And on Wednesday, we hope citizens can pin down EPA officials on another matter of enormous public concern. How much of that $1.34 billion is actually designated to improve or protect human health versus plants and animals?

We know there will be a lot of questions asked Wednesday. May each of them receive an honest and logical answer.

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