Wednesday, June 22, 1994

Coeur d'Alene Tribe wants to clean up 100 years of mining poison

"Paradise in Peril"
Coeur d'Alene Tribe wants to clean up 100 years of mining poison

By Terri C. Hansen
News from Indian Country
Pacific Northwest Bureau Chief

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho—On top of battling several of Idaho's political and economic heavyweights, the Coeur d'Alene Indian Tribe has challenged some of the largest mining companies in the world in their fight to force a clean up of mining contamination in the Coeur d'Alene River basin. A documentary produced by the Coeur d'Alenes describes their effort to return their sacred homeland to its once pristine state. The 25-minute film, "Paradise in Peril," airs on Idaho's public television network this month.

Using scenes of a starkly devastated landscape, the film informs viewers of the deadly outcome of a century of mining in what is known as Idaho's "Silver Valley". Home to a mining empire that lasted one hundred years, an estimated 72 million tons of mine waste poured down the rivers and tributaries of the Silver Valley basin and into Lake Coeur d'Alene.

Heavy metal pollution has destroyed much of the plant, animal and aquatic life of the region. The death of over 7000 tundra swans here, which stop and feed in the area during their migration, has been attributed by biologists to heavy metal poisoning. Many areas are now unsafe and dangerous to humans, especially children. The damage stretches over hundreds of square miles.

According to a 1991 U.S. Geological Survey report, Lake Coeur d'Alene has the highest heavy-metal contamination in the world. The federal Environmental Protection Agency designated a 21 square mile section a Superfund clean up site. The site, known as Bunker Hill, is the second worst Superfund project in the nation.

Coeur d'Alene tribal officials say Bunker Hill is but a small portion of the one hundred polluted miles. The designated Superfund site is a rectangular box, seven miles long and three miles wide. The Tribe calls it a "10% solution for 10% of the problem." The clean-up boundary ignores 90 percent of the pollution upriver from the site — 86 miles along the Coeur d'Alene River basin, which presently flows with lead, zinc, cadmium and arsenic. "As this battle continues, so does the flow of poisons," tribal officials say.

The Tribe says a study done by the mining companies accused of the pollution—and required to fund the clean up—has revealed heavy metal contaminants still flowing down the basin's tributaries into the Superfund clean-up box at the rate of 900 pounds each day. 1200 pounds flow out of the box downstream and into the lake. Even if the EPA is successful in removing heavy metals from Bunker Hill, much of the current load will still be released into the lake, the Tribe contends.

In Nov. 1992, efforts by the Coeur d'Alenes resulted in an unprecedented agreement signed between the Tribe, the state of Idaho and the U.S. government. The Memorandum of Agreement gave the Coeur d'Alenes the same authority as the state and federal government towards developing a restoration plan. The Tribe commended the agreement for recognizing their status as a sovereign nation.

But the mining companies were incensed, according to newspaper articles at that time. Gordon Crow, executive director of the Council for Mineral-Information, said in a local newspaper interview, "It means the tribe will have veto power over any and all decisions. The state's letting the fox into its own chicken coop and freezing out the people who are paying for the restoration efforts." CMI is an industry advocacy group based in Coeur d'Alene.

The Coeur d'Alene Tribe has taken their battle to federal court, with less success. To force a clean up of the poison, the Tribe filed a lawsuit in 1991 claiming tribal ownership of Lake Coeur d'Alene. The suit relies on an executive order issued by President Grant in 1873, which set aside the Tribe's reservation lands. But in a 1992 decision, U.S. Judge Harold Ryan dismissed the lawsuit. Ryan, citing the 11th Amendment, said the jurisdiction of federal courts does not extend to cases brought against a state by an Indian tribe, since states cannot be sued by another state or foreign nation. Ryan determined that Grant's executive order did not specifically include the lake, ruling that the federal equal footing doctrine gave ownership of all land under passable waters to Idaho upon statehood in 1890.

The Tribe appealed the decision Feb. 2, 1994 in Seattle, before the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. They asked the three-judge panel to reverse and send the suit back for trial, contending the judge ruled on the merits of the case when he concluded the lake was state-owned. In a separate action, the Tribe is suing the mining companies to pay for the clean up. However, Judge Ryan said that suit was a moot point in his 1992 decision dismissing the ownership lawsuit.

But the Coeur d'Alenes does not plan to give up. They are only gaining strength as warriors for what may be a protracted battle to restore a once undefiled land back to the condition intended by Creator.

And they are not alone. The Idaho Wildlife Federation—an affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation—recognized the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's leadership role and tireless efforts to expose and demand a solution to the contamination problem. In a 1993 resolution, the IWF urged support of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, "who have often been the most persistent voice in detailing what is a national tragedy."

"Paradise in Peril" is available in video format. To order, send $25 to Bob Bostwick, Coeur d'Alene Indian Tribe, Route 1, Plummer, Idaho 83851.

Copyright © 1994 Terri Crawford Hansen

Pacific Northwest Salmon in Crisis

by Terri C. Hansen
News from Indian Country
Bureau Chief/Pacific Northwest Bureau

Blame it on El Nino, warming ocean waters, hydroelectric dams, habitat destruction or even sea lions. But whatever the cause of dwindling salmon runs, the effect on Northwest Indian Nations can be summed up in one word: catastrophic.

"Certainly it is an economic crisis," says W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Washington Puget Sound Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe. But just as important - if not more so - are the spiritual and cultural aspects, he believes. Salmon are at the heart of Northwest Indian culture; their diet, commerce, ceremonies and spirituality. Salmon are not just a way of life. They are life. And they are fast becoming scarce.

Salmon runs plunged from 16 million less than half a century ago to just two million today. 106 stocks of wild Pacific salmon are extinct, according to the American Fisheries Society. Over 200 more are in peril. This year's projections for all coho and chinook salmon runs are worse than last year's all-time low.

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission represents nineteen Western Washington tribes with treaty fishing rights. Their expected announcement that the tribes would drastically reduce their customary salmon harvest this year came on March 31. More jolting, especially in terms of cultural impact, was their announcement that, in hopes of saving disappearing coho salmon runs, the tribes would cease all coho salmon fishing this year."

It was a difficult choice for the tribal leadership to make," says Allen, who as chairman of a treaty fishing tribe participated in the decision-making process. "Some tribes lean more heavily on certain salmon species than others," he says. "But we all rely on the coho."

The coho are in the worst trouble. Washington's Puget Sound coho runs are projected to drop under the minimum levels needed to spawn the next generation. Coho, also known as silver salmon, spawn in coastal streams from northern California to Washington. After spending their first year in the streams they travel to the ocean, where they live for two years before returning home to their native stream to spawn. So few wild coho remain today many environmental groups want them protected under the Endangered Species Act.

According to Northwest Indian fishing alliances, the current crisis has been in the making for some time. El Nino tipped the scales by warming the oceans and reducing the availability of the nutrient-rich cool water, Steve Robinson of the Northwest Indian Fish Commission explains. Because they are released at the same stage and stay closer to shore, coho are especially vulnerable and have been hardest hit by poor ocean conditions, says the Washington Department of Fisheries.

In an unprecedented move, the federal agency responsible for setting non-tribal ocean fishing limits adopted a "zero option" plan to close ocean fishing for all salmon species this year. The Pacific Fishery Management Council's official announcement came April 8. Rules for non-tribal river and estuary fishing won't be set until later this month. Even with no ocean fishing season, the number of salmon returning to Columbia River hatcheries will probably be less than the number needed to sustain the runs. Few coho returned this year to spawn. The destruction of their natural habitat has been an issue of environmentalists and Indian fishers for nearly two decades. Northwest treaty fishing nations, long involved in efforts to save declining salmon stocks, have labored since the early 80s to have sensitive portions of Pacific Northwest national forests designated "wilderness," thus protecting fish habitat from the erosion and stream sedimentation associated with logging and uncontrolled grazing. (Cold water, essential to most species of salmon, disappears from streams when logging and grazing practices eliminate vegetation needed for shade. The sediment and mud produced by clearcutting destroys salmon spawning areas; silt suffocates their eggs.) Lower stream flows due to irrigation, dryer than usual temperatures and low rainfall have all contributed to less than ample water in the streams.

But, many agree, it is the hydroelectric dams that have played a major role in the salmon's decline. Since the 1930s, when the Columbia began the change from a "wild," free-flowing river to a series of slack-water reservoirs, dam turbines have diced millions of smolts not intercepted by mechanical bypass systems or spilled over dams. Young fish that do survive may spend weeks getting to the ocean, a trip that once took a few days. Timing is critical to their survival; salmon smolts, once they begin a biological body change allowing them to adjust to life in salt water, have only a short time to reach the ocean or they die. In spite of a 1980 directive to dam operators from Congress to give equal treatment to the fish, dams have continued to operate primarily to maximize power generation.

"Volts over smolts" was a phrase used in a newsletter published almost a decade ago by a frustrated Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission. CRITFC represents four Columbia River treaty fishing nations; the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama. Commission publications throughout the 80s and 90s describe tribal efforts to decrease salmon smolt mortality by increasing spillwater over nine Columbia River dams that stand between salmon smolt and the sea. But the agencies and utilities responsible for the massive system of dams and reservoirs used on the Columbia and Snake rivers objected, claiming the price tag of lost electrical generation would come at too high a cost. Tim Wapato, then executive director of CRITFC, said (referring to 1985 U.S.-Canada treaty negotiations), "It doesn't do much good to limit the ocean catch if the smolts can't get to the sea." It echoes like a tragic prophecy today.

Earlier this year, in spite of well documented disappearing salmon runs and the recommendations of their own biologists, government agencies responsible for Columbia River Basin dam operations put forward a "business as usual" salmon recovery plan, declaring that "explanations for declining salmon stocks are elusive." CRITFC rejected the five-year plan, saying that it was "scientifically flawed," "contradictory to the requirements of the Endangered Species Act," and failed to adequately protect the declining salmon. Along with the states of Oregon and Alaska, CRITFC joined a lawsuit filed by Idaho in 1993 challenging the plan as inadequate.

On March 18, U.S. District Judge Malcolm Marsh heard arguments in the case in Boise, Idaho. Marsh ruled the plan flawed because it relied too much on the "status quo ... when the situation literally cries out for a major overhaul." He ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and Bureau of Reclamation to prepare a new plan within 60 days. Bill Yallup, a tribal council member of the Yakama Indian Nation, is on the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission. In a recent Associated Press article he analogized, "To deal only with harvest is like painting the outside of a house while the foundation is crumbling." Without intervention, Yallup says we will soon have no salmon left to harvest or -- more importantly -- to reproduce.

Copyright © 1994 Terri Crawford Hansen
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