Enemy Mine 

As if there weren’t enough environmental issues to demonstrate the old adage that we all live downstream, here’s one that also proves that what goes around comes around.

As you may know, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the U.S. Forest Service have been mired in a decade-long review process of the ASARCO (American Smelting and Refining Company) application to build a massive underground copper and silver mine below the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area in northwest Montana. The proposed mine, which would extract about 10,000 tons of copper and silver per day for the next 30 years, lies near the town of Noxon, 15 miles from the Idaho border and 25 miles upstream from Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho’s largest freshwater lake.

If approved, the mine would dump as much as three million gallons of polluted water every day into the Clark Fork River, the primary source of water for Lake Pend Oreille. In addition to the standard litany of toxic nastiness that oozes and flows from these mines, the discharged water would also be laden with inorganic nitrogen and phosphates.

Nitrogen and phosphates are nutrients that fuel the growth of algae, which seriously threatens water quality on the Clark Fork River and Lake Pend Oreille. Under Idaho law, both bodies of water are designated as “Special Resource Waters,” meaning that the state cannot allow new sources of pollution into those waters or the streams that feed them. The Rock Creek Mine would clearly fit that description.

Chad Harder
“We would like to see the EPA exercise their authority on this mine, but they’ve been very reluctant to,” says Mary Mitchell of the Rock Creek Alliance. Mitchell says ASARCO’s Troy mine has been cited for repeated water quality violations.


Since this problem of so-called “nutrient loading” into the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille system affects such a broad cross-section of interests throughout Montana, Idaho, and Washington, a coalition of municipalities, tribes, conservation groups and private industries from all three states was formed about four years ago to address the problem. Last year, this Tri-State Implementation Council received approval by the EPA to implement a Voluntary Nutrient Reduction Program (VNRP) on the Clark Fork River.

The concept is simple: The four major dischargers of nutrients into the Clark Fork —the cities of Butte, Deer Lodge, Missoula and Smurfit-Stone Container—all agreed to make a significant commitment to reduce their nutrient discharges in order to improve the basin’s water quality. For Missoula alone, that commitment represents a $15 million investment in a new wastewater facility slated for construction sometime in the next three years.

Ironically, the DEQ is now drafting a final Environmental Impact Statement for a project that, if approved, could undermine (excuse the pun) that entire effort. In a November 30, 1998 letter to Montana DEQ Director Mark Simonich, the Tri-State Implementation Council writes: “The Council believes it makes little sense to have the major dischargers agree to make significant nutrient reductions in the upper and middle river, only to have potentially consequential nutrient loads added further downstream.”

While the state of Montana moves ahead with ASARCO’s application (a final EIS is due out this fall), a group of five conservation groups has sent a letter to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (IDEQ), calling on them to oppose the approval of the Rock Creek Mine because its pollution will violate Idaho’s water quality standards.

Now here’s the real kick in the head: If IDEQ takes no action to prevent this mine and fails to enforce its own water quality standards which protect not one but two threatened bodies of water, it exposes itself to litigation. However, if IDEQ opposes the mine, it then finds itself in the awkward predicament of asking Montana not to do to its lakes and rivers what Idaho has been doing for years to the state of Washington.

You see, Idaho’s Silver Valley, the nation’s second largest Superfund site, is the primary cause of widespread contamination to Washington’s Spokane River and Lake Roosevelt. Traces of lead, zinc and other heavy metals in those waters have been traced directly to the Silver Valley. Washington’s best clean-up efforts have been contingent upon Idaho cleaning up its own act, something Idaho has been historically reluctant to do.

“Idaho has stonewalled clean-up plans for 100 years now,” says Michelle Nanni of the Lands Council in Spokane. “They have dragged their feet and kicked and screamed that Washington has any say in the clean-up of the Spokane River. But Idaho is exceeding federal standards even before that water flows across the state line.”

“The history of mining has been that states tend to look the other way and don’t step on other states’ sovereignty,” says Scott Brown of the Idaho Conservation League, one of the five environmental groups calling on the IDEQ to oppose the Rock Creek mine.

According to June Berquist of IDEQ, Idaho has yet to take a position on the Rock Creek Mine, saying they’re awaiting more information from Montana. Meanwhile, Montana DEQ Director Simonich responded to the Tri-State Implementation Council’s letter by writing that the DEQ “has no authority to require ASARCO to enter into a mandatory nutrient reduction agreement with other parties, although they are free to do so voluntarily.”

Still, with both the Clark Fork and Lake Pend Oreille as crucial habitats for bull trout, a species listed last summer as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, this across-the-border water quality dispute may very well draw the intervention of the EPA, something opponents of the mine would probably not mind one bit.

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