Coeur d'Alene tribe supports EPA method for creosote removal

Federal officials tried for more than a year to convince the Coeur d'Alene Indians to support a Superfund cleanup for a St. Maries log yard, according to a tribal scientist.

The Spokesman Review

Julie Titone Staff writer

December 12, 2000 -- Federal officials tried for more than a year to convince the Coeur d'Alene Indians to support a Superfund cleanup for a St. Maries log yard, according to a tribal scientist.

The tribe finally decided to support the Superfund designation, Phil Cernera said, because it saw no progress being made toward finding nonfederal money to clean up creosote contamination. The cancer-causing chemical was used to treat logs in a yard beside the St. Joe River. It spilled into the soil and began showing up in the riverbank and water in 1998.

The tribe is well aware that both city and Benewah County officials are dead-set against a Superfund designation, Cernera said.

"The tribe is trying to be good neighbors," he said, "But we've got creosote entering surface waters of the Coeur d'Alene Reservation ... We've got bull trout that migrate up the St. Joe River - so there's creosote in threatened and endangered species habitat, and it's just not a good thing. Not to mention water quality."

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency began the process of putting the log yard on its Superfund National Priorities List, meaning federal money would be available for cleanup. Public comments will be taken until Jan. 30. The final listing could occur within three to six months, remedial project manager Hanh Gold said.

Cernera noted that the Superfund law was passed specifically to take care of small polluted sites like this one.

"This is perfect Superfund stuff," he said this week. "We get in, we do it, we get out, we put a feather in everyone's cap. We get the river clean."

However, most people in the region associate Superfund with the massive cleanup of the Bunker Hill industrial site - a mining waste remediation effort that might be extended to the entire Coeur d'Alene River Basin.

"If it was that simple, that would be great," said St. Maries Mayor Ernie Pendell. "But EPA has never done anything that simple. If they come and they start, they'll never get finished. It's something that can be done privately probably at a third of the cost."

EPA attorney Elizabeth McKenna tried to allay fears of agency overzealousness by saying "we don't have a lot of money in Superfund anymore."

"It's our intent to get in and do an investigation as quickly as possible, do the remediation and get out," McKenna said.

The city's interest is keen. It is one of two parties named so far as being responsible for cleanup. That's because St. Maries leased the property to companies for the better part of 60 years. That ended in 1999, after the creosote leak was discovered. The city did a title search and could find no record that it ever owned the property.

St. Maries asked the EPA more than a year ago to determine the land ownership. The city has heard nothing back, Pendell said. Meanwhile, the city has spent $117,000 on emergency cleanup efforts and lawyer's fees. More than $400,000 has been spent, with the balance coming from Carney Products Co. Ltd., which never used creosote but has most recently used the riverside property.

According to Cernera, the parties involved have expressed willingness to pay for more studies to determine the remaining scope of the problem, but won't commit to cleanup.

Carney Products President Jim Comerford confirmed that city, federal and company attorneys have been involved in negotiations in Seattle. He would not say who else is involved in discussions.

"I sure don't want taxpayers paying for it," Benewah County Commissioner Jack Buell said of the cleanup. "I think the people who created it should be paying for it.

"Right now the people who had nothing to do with it - the city of St. Maries and the Carney people - are paying for it."

Carney Products stores and processes logs at the site. There were two companies that treated logs with creosote there:

Cook Cedar, which signed a 50-year, $1-a-year lease with the city in 1939; B.J. Carney Inc., which bought Cook Cedar in 1960. In 1981 that company was sold to the other firm with a similar name, Carney Products.

EPA officials have sent out requests for information to B.J. Carney, which has dissolved as a corporation. The agency also has shared information about the site's history with Carney Products, which is doing its own investigation of previous owners.

The ultimate cost of cleanup "is so ballparky it's not even worth discussing," Cernera said. "The $100,000 question or $1 million question is: How deep is this stuff?"

It's possible, he said, that creosote is bubbling up from the river bottom as well as coming from the banks. A floating absorbent boom was placed in the river to collect the oily substance, but right now it's out of the water because the river has dropped for the season.

The city has no insurance to pay for the cleanup. St. Maries residents are concerned about the cost, Pendell said.

He said he doesn't think the creosote poses a big health or environmental threat. "There's a little sheen on the water ... The tests just don't show there's much there."

An EPA press release noted that the St. Joe River is a source of drinking water, but Pendell said he doesn't know where that is the case. St. Maries gets its water from Rochat Creek, about 8 miles upstream.

This sidebar appeared with the story:

To learn more

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed adding the St. Maries creosote site to its Superfund list. Public comment will be accepted until Jan. 30. Interested parties are asked to send an original and three copies of their comments to:

Docket Coordinator, Headquarters

U.S. EPA CERCLA Docket Office - 5201G

Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, D.C. 20460.

The express mail address is:

Docket Coordinator, Headquarters

U.S. EPA CERCLA Docket Office

1235 Jefferson Davis Highway

Crystal Gateway No. 1, First Floor

Arlington, VA 22202

E-mailed comments can be sent to They must be followed up with an original and three copies sent by mail.

The Internet site for more information on the proposal is: sites/npl/npl.htm.

Questions can be addressed to project manager Hanh Gold at (206) 553-0171, or community involvement coordinator Debra Packard at (206) 553-0247. The toll-free number is (800) 424-4372.

© 2000 The Spokesman Review. via Bell&Howell Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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