Report Calls For Flexible Management Of Superfund, Mining Megasites

A new report by the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC) finds that laying out detailed, long-range plans for cleaning up complex Superfund and mining "megasites" is unrealistic for EPA. Instead, programs should emphasize adaptive management -- a flexible approach that allows plans to be revised based on evaluations of each phase in the cleanup.

An NRC committee was asked to extract lessons from the Coeur d'Alene site that could be applied at other large, mining-related Superfund sites. The findings, based on a NRC study of the cleanup of the Coeur d'Alene River Basin Superfund site and announced on July 14, indicate that "an effective program for mining megasites should emphasis long-term management of sites, recognizing that the remediation process inevitably will take decades to complete."

According to NRC, EPA is currently using some of these principles at the Coeur d'Alene site, the report notes, but the agency's approach lacks some needed elements, such as specific benchmarks to indicate whether remedies are working.

EPA's scientific and technical decisions in assessing risks to human health from pollution at a Superfund site in the Coeur d'Alene River Basin have been generally sound, NRC also found. And the agency's remediation plans for residential areas should adequately protect residents against the most serious health threats, provided floods do not recontaminate cleaned-up areas. However, the committee that wrote the report expressed "substantial concerns" about EPA's proposed strategies for cleaning up and protecting the environment, including fish and wildlife.

Congress asked NRC to assess EPA's decisions concerning a 1,500-square-mile area in the Coeur d'Alene River Basin of northern Idaho and eastern Washington that is designated for cleanup under Superfund legislation because of contamination from years of mining for silver, zinc, and lead. A 21-square-mile "box" around Idaho's Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Complex was declared a Superfund site in 1983 after high blood levels of lead were detected in local children, and high levels of metals were measured in the environment.

The report, Superfund and Mining Megasites: Lessons From the Coeur d'Alene River Basin, can be accessed at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11359.html.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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