Hundreds pack EPA meeting

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Ramona Hollenbeck of Pinehurst, left, converses with her friend Marsha Henderson of Pinehurst as Larry Jennings of Kingston looks over the various informational papers available during the EPA open house Wednesday night.

SMELTERVILLE - Concern for health and heritage brought more than 250 Silver Valley residents together with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency project managers at the EPA open house and public meeting Wednesday night.

"This is really all about you and hearing your comments," said Bill Adams, one of the three EPA project managers in Region 10 who attended the event. Through the open house and public meeting, Adams said he hoped to continue to educate residents while dispelling rumors, setting the proper stage for informed community comments.

Adams said the EPA has had a presence in the valley since the 1980s and that their work continues today in the Upper Basin of the Coeur d'Alene River. The recently-issued Record of Decision, or ROD, amendment outlines a $1.3 billion upper basin cleanup plan that will span 50 to 90 years.

"It will be an evolving document that will be revised on a regular basis," Adams said of the ROD amendment. He emphasized that there will be opportunities every five years for the EPA to identify what actions have been taken and for the public to voice their concerns.

The plan includes 14 community drainage projects to protect existing remedies, removing mine tailings from along creeks and streams and to evacuate and cap mining and mill sites that pose a risk to the community.

"The cleanup will not change mining regulations," Adams stressed, adding that they hope to coordinate cleanups and future EPA actions with area mining companies.

He also defended the cost of the cleanup, explaining how the cost is proportionate to the magnitude of risk and the number of areas that require cleanup. The approximate $500 million in the ASARCO trust, if used slowly so that it may accrue interest, is expected to fund most of the EPA cleanup plan.

Adams said the continued efforts of the EPA in the Silver Valley will provide jobs. Not only do they already employ more than 200 people for the residential cleanup, but Adams projects up to 600 potential jobs in the future once the ROD amendment is in action.

"Just remember how many jobs were here before Bunker Hill went down," said Eva Sullivan in reply as she stood before the mass of people at the meeting during her two minutes at the podium.

Byron Braaten, a miner since the age of 18 and currently employed at the Lucky Friday mine, also voiced his concern over the EPA's actions negatively affecting the mining industry.

"It is a cornerstone on which this valley was founded," Braaten said, calling mining one of the "pillar industries" in Idaho.

Jim Sabala, senior vice president and CFO of Hecla Mining Company, took the podium to defend the mining industry in the valley and questioned the validity of research cited by the EPA.

The passion of the crowd was apparent as the comment session facilitator Bob Wheeler's two minute warning to Sabala was met with cries of "Let him talk!"

"If you really want to help us, get in your Prius' and go back to Seattle," stated James McMillan, an attorney in Wallace. He admitted that while that may be too much to ask, he hoped at the very least more time would be offered to residents and business owners to read through and evaluate the ROD amendment.

He asked the audience to raise their hands if they had read through the entire ROD amendment, with very few responding that they had. He stressed that details such as water rights may become a point of contention if not sorted out.

"This tonight is just to placate us," said Mary Ruth Dilling, continuing to say that she believes the EPA has already made up its mind to continue with the proposed plan.

A court reporter present at the EPA public meeting recorded the comments and concerns voiced by Silver Valley residents and business owners, and a response will be published by the EPA in the near future on their website and at local libraries.

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