Bringing to light Lake Coeur d’Alene’s deep secret 

Contaminated waste mars beauty of region’s economic and recreational gem

There weren’t many people out on Lake Coeur d’Alene on Memorial Day weekend. Bad weather, flooded boat ramps and floating debris saw to that. But as the weather improves and the debris washes away, boaters and tourists will flood Lake Coeur d’Alene in a torrent to rival this spring’s high waters. Soon parasailers, jetskiers, cruisers, paddlers and swimmers will be out basking in their slice of Inland Northwest paradise.

Named by French trappers (coeur means "heart," d’alene means "of the awl, or iron needle," referring to the local natives’ reported "hard-hearted" stinginess in trading), the lake has been the economic and psychological cornerstone of Kootenai County for the past 100 years. For thousands of years before that, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe lived on its shores and fished and paddled its waters.

Now primarily a popular spot for recreating, the lake still continues to carry logs to mills, and feeds into the region’s hydroelectric system. At one time, the lake had steamboat traffic rivaling that on the Mississippi River, and was the main conduit for mining products and wastes from the surrounding hillsides.

In fact, perhaps no Inland Northwest feature captures the mixed legacy of this region’s history better than Lake Coeur d’Alene: On the surface, the lake is a beautiful retreat, but experts estimate that at the bottom of Lake Coeur d’Alene lie 75 million tons of contaminated sediment.

Debate over how to clean up Lake Coeur d’Alene, its tributaries and their shores has raged for years in North Idaho, growing in intensity as activity on the lake has mushroomed. Since the opening of the Coeur d’Alene Resort in the mid ‘80s, tourists have been flocking to the lake’s shores in record numbers, pushing tourism into a spot as one of North Idaho’s top three industries.

But just as Lake Coeur d’Alene has been gaining national recognition for its beauty and recreation, it has also been getting extensive publicity for the pollution under its surface. The New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal have all run extensive stories on the lake’s heavy metal pollution in the last two years. The message is clear--Lake Coeur d’Alene may be one of the world’s most beautiful lakes, but it is also one of the most polluted.

U.S. Geological Survey studies say that in one day alone, during last year’s flooding, one million tons of heavy metal-laced sediment washed into the lake basin.

Waste from mining is no longer dumped directly into the Coeur d’Alene River, which flows into the lake from the nearby Silver Valley, but waste from tailings piles and old mines continues to leach into the lake, particularly during flooding events like those experienced in the region over the past two years.

The battle to restore the lake is proceeding on a number of fronts; in court, in Congress and on the ground, a variety of concerned parties are haggling over the details.

Frustrated with how Idaho has responded to the contamination issue (the state legislature settled with the mining industry for $4.5 million in 1986, even though experts say cleanup could reach into the billions of dollars), the Coeur d’Alene Tribe is suing for ownership of Lake Coeur d’Alene, which was deeded to them by President Ulysses S. Grant before Idaho became a state. A second suit by the tribe is seeking money for the clean-up from the mining companies responsible for the waste.

The federal government is also suing several area mining companies, including Hecla and ASARCO, for damages caused by mining activity in the region. Idaho Sens. Larry Craig, Dirk Kempthorne and Reps. Helen Chenoweth and Mike Crapo introduced the Coeur d’Alene Basin Restoration Act in Congress last month.

Just how to proceed with restoration is another issue. Some say the lake should be left alone. Others say that once the mining waste upstream is cleaned up, the lake will slowly begin its natural recovery. Still others recommend limited dredging along banks and in the shallows of the lake. (No one is advocating dredging the entire lake; similar to the situation with Bonner’s Milltown Dam, near Missoula, such a process would be costly and could cause poisonous sediments to be stirred up and suspended in the water.)

Members of the Coeur d’Alene Basin Restoration Project Citizens Advisory Council (CAC) made recommendations to Republican Sen. Larry Craig when the Idaho senator’s office was drafting the restoration bill. Now, they say, they are disappointed with the results.

Buddy Paul, a CAC member and president of a lake shore homeowners association, says the bill has some major flaws.

"We are hopeful that something will get done that will meet the needs of all involved, but, at the same time, we are concerned that this legislation didn’t incorporate a wider variety of interests," Paul says.

The CAC had recommended that Washington state be included on the commission and in the cleanup process, a recommendation that was not included in the current bill.

"We think that Washington is a vital part of the watershed, and with Washington’s political power, a Northwest bill would have more power and a better chance of being passed," says Paul.

Another issue that concerns Paul is the fact that under the current bill most of the Coeur d’Alene Basin Commission members are appointed by Phil Batt, Idaho’s Republican governor, effectively stacking the deck in favor of his interests.

Also, the bill does not set up funding for the clean-up. However, Craig’s press secretary, Michael Fransden, says that a clean-up plan and the funding needed for it will be established by a commission of people representing the federal government, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the State of Idaho, the mining companies and citizens. Fransden also criticizes those who want to take the fight into the courtroom.

"The goal is to put money on the ground for clean-up, as opposed to in the courts for litigation," Fransden says. "If environmentalists are really concerned about clean-up, they should be less concerned with litigation."

Some say that one of Lake Coeur d’Alene’s problems is that it may be too beautiful. It’s hard to get people concerned about heavy metals at the bottom of a lake filled with crystal clear water. Unlike lakes clogged with algae blooms or covered with sludge and slime, Lake Coeur d’Alene doesn’t look polluted.

"Part of the reason Lake Coeur d’Alene looks so clear is because of the high zinc levels, which kills algae," says Scott Brown, of the Idaho Conservation League. "There’s an assumption that the contamination is being covered up with clean sediment and thus poses less of a problem all the time, but the heavy metals migrate up through the lower concentrations and sit at the interface of the water and the sediment, where they are available to the water column."

Those metals are not dissolving in the water currently, but Mike Beckwith, with the U.S. Geological Survey, says that if too many nutrients find their way into the lake (either in the form of fertilizer or human waste), algae blooms could break out. The dead algae, in turn, could sink to the bottom, causing oxygen depletion, which could then cause the heavy metals to dissolve and rise.

Beckwith says the USGS estimates that 85 percent of the lake bottom is covered with 14 inches of sediments with elevated levels of lead, copper and cadmium.

And those sediments can be harmful to wildlife and humans. Upstream from Lake Coeur d’Alene, where the mining wastes originate, migrating swans have been dying of lead poisoning for years when they ingest the sediments while searching for food.

"Somebody has to clean this up," says Bob Bostwick, press secretary for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. "Water fowl are dying each year by the hundreds, and it is a serious health issue for humans."

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