U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Cleaning up Coeur d'Alene

Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman highlights the history behind a $1.79 billion bankruptcy settlement between the American Smelting and Refining Co. (ASARCO), owner of the Bunker Hill Mine in Kellogg, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Lead from the mines helped fuel World War II's barrage of bullets and Idaho's economic trajectory, but the mine owners knowingly emitted large amounts of lead into the environment, though they could have fixed the emissions control.

Instead, they pursued record profits while poisoning the air with a substance known to make children fidgety, dumb and brain damaged.  The Kellogg mine was on the Coeur d'Alene river, which drains into Lake Coeur d'Alene, which along with the upper reaches of the Spokane River is now one of the nation's largest Superfund sites.

Now, the mine's waste tailings, full of heavy metals like cadmium, spread into Washington, and the state and the E.P.A.'s work is not done.  $435 million of the settlement is set aside specifically for Bunker Hill.  The clean up of the mines is revving Idaho's economic engine now, attracting another $15-20 million in stimulus funds from the Obama Administration.

Read University of Idaho Associate Professor Katherine Aiken's excellent history of the Bunker Hill mine, whose owners were embroiled in Watergate, giving illegal contributions to the EPA to influence its decisions, rather than spending the money on cleaning up the toxic legacy they had left to Idaho and Washington's children.

Obama's people make the case that fighting climate change = jobs

Our good friends at grist.org commissioned this story today. Hope you like it:

By Robert McClure

SEATTLE—You could tell by the way Obama administration officials pep-talked a roomful of clean-energy businesspeople today that the White House realizes it hasn’t convinced Americans that “tackling climate change = ending the recession.”

rm iwest mugAgain and again EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Energy Undersecretary Kristina Johnson pounded on the jobs issue at a pre-Copenhagen climate talks event designed to showcase how energy efficiency, the smart grid and renewable energy can boost employment rates.

“We’re hearing a whole host of reasons today to support American clean energy. There are national security reasons. There are environmental reasons, and there are public-health reasons,” Jackson said. “But perhaps the most compelling reason at this moment and in this place is the economy.”

The very setting of the clean energy forum fairly screamed “JOBS!” It was a nearly-finished “innovation center” that is leasing space for startups, built by McKinstry Co. beside the firm’s south Seattle offices. McKinstry is all about energy efficiency in buildings (which is where something like a third to two-fifths of our energy use occurs, depending on how you’re counting).

And, get this: Even as the recession roared ahead into high gear earlier this year, McKinstry announced plans to hire 500 people.

That can happen more, Jackson said.

Feds dump mine waste in Idaho flood plain

The Northwest News Network produced this fantastic story for KUOW News about how the federal stimulus package has sped up the disposal of arsenic- and lead-contaminated mine spoils on a flood plain off I-90 in Northern Idaho.

The East Mission Flats Repository is a Superfund site designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to receive the remains of Idaho's toxic mining history despite being in a floodplain inundated just last year.  Community groups are concerned that the area will flood again, spreading more toxic metals into state waters.

The pile of waste will stand up to 34 feet high within view from where Idaho's oldest building stands in the Old Mission State Park, sacred to both the Coeur d'Alene Indians and the Jesuits.

EPA to unleash $10 million in funding for Puget Sound

The plight of Puget Sound continues its climb to national prominence a la the Everglades, Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes. Today the U.S. Environmental Protection announced it's giving out $10 million in funding for projects to help rescue the Sound.

That $10 million isn't huge compared to the multi-billion-dollar pricetag a full rescue of the Sound probably will cost, or even in comparison to the amounts already spent by the state of Washington and local governments.

But it represents a decent chunk of change, and appears to cement an ongoing spot in the federal budget for restoration of Washington's beautiful but ailing inland sea. Here's what EPA's press release had to say about that:

Additional solicitations for Puget Sound federal funding are expected in the near future.

That's bureaucratese for "there's more where that came from."

Michelle Pirzadeh, acting administrator of EPA's Seattle-based Region 10, noted that the $10 million comes at a particularly handy time, budgetwise: 

This funding will go directly to our local and tribal partners who are on the front lines of protecting and restoring Puget Sound. These dollars come at critical time when budgets are stretched thin and help is needed to recover the Sound by 2020.

The money is to be used to improve shellfish-growing areas, many of which have been polluted by stormwater runoff; clean up contaminated sand and mud in bay bottoms; stanch the flow of pollution into the Sound and its tributaries; and restore and protect saltwater marshes and other so-called "estuarine wetlands" that occur where salt and fresh waters meet.

Local governments, Indian tribes and special taxing districts set up to help the Sound -- such as one envisioned for all the counties that surround the Sound -- are eligible for the EPA grants.

EPA to redouble Clean Water Act enforcement

You wouldn't guess it from a late-Friday Google News search, but in my book, this qualifies as big news: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency promised today to redouble its efforts to  enforce the Clean Water Act.

The EPA's announcement today comes in reaction to an excellent New York Times series that we've paid homage to before, and which documented how polluters have systematically violated the Clean Water Act for decades, often with little or no retribution.

What's really significant is that agency is promising to go after some of the most prolific sources of stormwater, including city streets and feedlots.  We've been harping on this topic for years now, and it's great to get the heft of the NYT into the picture. The paper reports EPA is likely to go after "mining companies, large livestock farms, municipal wastewater treatment plants and construction companies that operate sites where polluted stormwater has run into nearby lakes and rivers." About time.

Here's what EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson had to say in the agency's press release:

Updating our efforts under the Clean Water Act will promote innovative solutions for 21st century water challenges, build stronger ties between EPA, state, and local actions, and provide the transparency the public rightfully expects.

It should be pointed out that reporters had documented parts of this story before the Times. Yours truly, along with Lisa Stiffler, Lise Olsen and others at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, did that in the Puget Sound region earlier this decade.

NYT, AP give us some in-depth reporting on water pollution

Wow. After toiling for years to expose the ills of water pollution, it's really exciting to see some of the nation's largest news organizations tackling some of the country's biggest water-contamination problems.

We've previously highlighted the New York Times' excellent piece on widespread industrial non-compliance with the Clean Water Act, which leads in some cases to polluted drinking water.

It's part of the NYT's "Toxic Waters" series. The latest installment devles into one of our favorite topics, stormwater, and particularly the nasty stuff generated at animal feedlots known as CAFOs.

Meanwhile, over at the Associated Press, some poor journalist whose byline was dropped when his story ran in the Charleston Daily Mail has done an admirable job looking into the quality of drinking water in the nation's schools. We helped in a sort of consultant role when the colleagues at the Seattle P-I took this topic on some years ago. We're glad the AP went after the national picture.

-- Robert McClure

Obama administration to second-guess controversial Bush-era smog rule

There are a lot of folks following this more closely than I am, but make no mistake about it: The Obama administration's decision today to revisit the Bush administration's ruling on how much smog we'll tolerate in the air is a big honkin' deal.

Note that two of the best early versions of the story come from Texas, where they know from air pollution: Randy Lee Loftis's blog post for The Dallas Morning News (reader comment: "This should be front page news." We'll see...) and Matthew Tresaugue's piece in The Houston Chronicle.


-- Robert McClure

NYT helps you track down water pollution in your town

It's true that the mainstream media has plenty to apologize for, having flubbed reporting on Iraq and the financial crisis and for its tortoise-like pace in moving into the modern age of interactive journalism. (For an interesting take on that last part, and more, see Dan Gillmor's worthwhile "Eleven Things I'd Do If I Ran A News Organization." No anniversary stories or top 10 lists, for starters.)

But this week brings a powerful reminder of what the MSM can do that isn't generally possible in other quarters -- and in this case, the MSM is explicitly trying to empower citizen journalists and fellow scribes to run further with the story.

I'm speaking, of course, about the powerful package that ran this week in The New York Times on lax enforcement of our country's water-pollution rules. It's the latest installment in a series called "Toxic Waters."

Charles Duhigg's story starts with a woman whose kids got scabs and rashes and had teeth enamel eaten away by polluted drinking water. She lives just 17 miles from the state Capitol in West Virginia:

Neighbors apply special lotions after showering because their skin burns. Tests show that their tap water contains arsenic, barium, lead, manganese and other chemicals at concentrations federal regulators say could contribute to cancer and damage the kidneys and nervous system.

“How can we get digital cable and Internet in our homes, but not clean water?” said Mrs. Hall-Massey, a senior accountant at one of the state’s largest banks.  “How is this still happening today?”

The Times wore out a lot of virtual shoe leather on this project, filing public-records requests with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and with all 50 states.