Idaho environmental official seeks money for mine pollution

January 18, 2019

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The agency responsible for safeguarding Idaho’s environment needs money to clean up toxic discharge from an abandoned silver and lead mine near one of the world’s top ski destinations, its director said Friday.

Idaho Department of Environmental Quality Director John Tippets also told the Legislature’s budget-setting Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee that additional money is needed as the agency takes over for the federal government in regulating pollution that gets into waterways.

Overall, the agency is requesting about $68 million for fiscal year 2020, about the same amount that Gov. Brad Little is recommending. Lawmakers will decide on the budget request in the coming weeks.

Tippets wants $1.5 million for work at the Triumph Mine in central Idaho, about 7 miles (11 kilometers) southeast and downstream of Sun Valley Resort’s Bald Mountain ski area. He said the money is needed after settling a lawsuit by the Idaho Conservation League last year.

The conservation group said Idaho officials were discharging arsenic and other pollutants into the east fork of the Big Wood River in violation of the Clean Water Act.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1993 proposed adding the mine to the national Superfund list to help with cleanup. But the stigma, possible damage to tourism and a drop in property values led residents and officials in Blaine County, which relies heavily on tourism, to reject the idea.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality then took over responsibility for the mine in a deal with the EPA. Asarco Mining Co. later filed for bankruptcy and paid Idaho $1.7 million to take care of cleanup at the mine. Tippets said that money is running out.

“Our expenses are not going to go away anytime soon,” he told lawmakers. “We’ll be managing that for a long time.”

In response to questions from lawmakers, he said the mine has had two collapses, but two giant plugs are in the mine preventing a catastrophic release of contaminated water that has accumulated since it was abandoned.

Tippets also is requesting about $750,000 for the Idaho Pollutant Discharge Elimination System as the state continues taking over permitting and enforcement duties from the federal government under the Clean Water Act.

Last year, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and then-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed an agreement that shifted control from the EPA to Idaho.

The state up to that point had been one of only four where federal authorities manage pollution discharge into surface waters. The others are New Mexico, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Idaho lawmakers in 2014 directed environmental officials to seek EPA authorization for the state-run program. Idaho officials say a state-run program will be more responsive and local experts who are better acquainted with Idaho will be making decisions.

Some of the money that Tippets requested Friday will be used to hire three more workers to reach the goal of 29 in the state’s program.

“It’s taken a tremendous effort for us to get to this point,” Tippets said.

He said the EPA has a backlog of permits and that he might in future years request budget approval for more permit writers. He said the EPA would say understaffing at that agency led to the backlog.

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