"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