The Associated Press

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho (AP) -- Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter is criticizing a proposal by federal environmental regulators for expanding their cleanup of historic mining waste and contaminants in Idaho's Silver Valley region.

Otter outlined his concerns in a letter submitted Monday to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is taking public comments on its plan -- called an amended Record of Decision -- for extracting heavy metals, treating water and eliminating toxic mine sites along a 40-mile stretch of the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River basin.

The Republican governor urged the EPA to set reasonable goals and cautioned against any projects that could imperil existing or future mining in the region.

"In my view, the proposed ROD amendment must not go forward unless the EPA commits that cleanup work will not impede existing or future mining," according to Otter's letter, reported by the Coeur d'Alene Press. "Moreover, the proposed ROD is not acceptable unless the EPA identifies and commits to reasonable and achievable endpoints."

The EPA has spent nearly 20 years cleaning up the Superfund site in Kellogg that was once one of the most polluted places in the country, with arsenic and lead stripping the hillsides of vegetation and poisoning the blood of children.

The agency now wants to broaden the cleanup to outlying areas and more rivers and streams. The price tag is estimated at $1.3 billion and could take anywhere from 50 to 90 years to complete. The expansion would be partially funded by a recent $500 million settlement with Asarco, one of the successors of the Bunker Hill mine that is blamed for polluting the valley.

But there are mixed feelings in northern Idaho about such an extended and pricey expansion. Some residents and leaders would rather have the cleanup and EPA presence wind down and worry the agency's long-term presence will stunt the region's prospects for economic growth.

Otter said he talked with lawmakers and other leaders in the region before submitting his letter.

He urged the agency to set a defined and limited timeframe for the additional cleanup and to draft it in a way that focuses on human-health restoration.

He criticized the section of the proposal devoted to water treatment, calling it an open-ended plan to "wildly spend public resources and perform work that is of questionable value," according to the letter.

Dan Opalski, EPA director of environmental cleanup, said the agency will consider comments that have been submitted in the last four months. But he says the agency still has a mission to do use the best science and technology available to meet its legal mandate to clean up the environment.

"It's understandable that some people have serious concerns," Opalski said. "But ultimately, we'll be weighing all the input we receive ... and considering the underpinnings of science and the responsibilities we have under the law."

The public comment period ends Nov. 23.


Information from: Coeur d'Alene Press,

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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