Lead Astray: 

Silver Valley has suffered the highest level of lead poisoning in the country. \nSo why do most of its residents want to stop cleaning it up?

In 1939, artist Fletcher Martin was commissioned to paint a mural on the wall of the post office in the small mining town of Kellogg, Idaho, part of a New Deal work project designed to put unemployed artists, actors and musicians back to work while bringing a touch of culture into the Heartland. The mural, depicting two men rescuing a fellow miner injured in a mining accident, was praised for its honesty by the local miners’ union. Not surprisingly, mine owners found its graphic nature objectionable and “inappropriate” for a mining community, as it would serve as a painful reminder to those who had lost loved ones in mining accidents.

Needless to say, the mining companies won out and forced Martin to redesign his mural. The inoffensive and politically correct substitute—which still hangs in the Kellogg Post Office—depicts two 19th century prospectors celebrating the discovery of a new lode.

Kellogg’s short-lived excursion into the realm of social realism proved a dismal failure. Still, the mural stands as a symbol of the complex and oftentimes schizophrenic relationship that exists between residents of Idaho’s Silver Valley and the mining industry. It is a relationship that has been marked by a fierce pride in the social, economic and historical significance of this region, as well as by widespread denial of mining’s enormous human and ecological costs.

The Silver Valley has been called one of the largest and most lucrative mining complexes in the world. Since the discovery of rich veins of gold, silver, lead, zinc and cadmium in the 1880s, the region has produced metals valued at more than $4.6 billion. Town names, businesses, and geographic features—Silverton, Smelterville, Magnet Gulch, Compressor District—all bear witness to the depths to which the mining industry has tunneled into this valley’s narrow, winding canyons and rooted itself in the collective psyche of its citizenry.

In early 1974, following a fire at Gulf Resources’ “baghouse,” the main pollution control device at the company’s lead smelter, residents of the Silver Valley were exposed to lead emissions over a four-month period roughly equivalent to 20 years of normal smelter operations. Later that year, when the government began to notice a marked increase in worker disabilities in the region, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began testing residents and discovered some of the highest blood lead levels ever recorded in humans.

Thus began the long, excruciating process of calculating how high a price had been paid for more than a century of mining’s excesses, a tally that continues to climb to this day. Since 1983, the Silver Valley has borne the dubious distinction of being home to the nation’s second largest Superfund site, Bunker Hill, arguably one of the costliest environmental cleanups in history.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approximately 100 million tons of ore and waste rock have been extracted from the Silver Valley in the last century, of which 60 to 70 million tons were disposed of directly into the environment. When co-mingled with “clean” materials in the area, the magnitude of this mining waste has increased by as much as a factor of ten. EPA estimates that about 72 million pounds of mine waste were dumped directly into the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, creating a 150-mile toxic plume that runs from the Idaho/Montana line to Lake Roosevelt in eastern Washington.

To say that EPA and the Superfund designation have been met with staunch opposition from the mining industry, various business interests, Idaho’s elected officials and many Silver Valley residents would be a colossal understatement. According to Dr. John Osborn, author of a paper entitled, “Purging Mining’s Poisons,” “The money trail leading from mining companies to Idaho politicians is clearly marked and much traveled,” from which the attacks launched on EPA have been “vicious and relentless.”

Just this October, U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho) released a 57-page statement entitled “Investigative Report Concerning Abuses of Federal Law and of the Citizens of North Idaho by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.” In it, Chenoweth-Hage blasts the agency for its “failed science, failed engineering, suspect cleanup, lack of common sense, suspect or nonexistent accounting, cost- and time-overruns … and gross insensitivity to community wishes, all [of which] characterize EPA’s distorted accomplishments in the Coeur d’Alene Basin.”

Such is the hostile terrain in which EPA operates, typified by the yellow placards seen on lawns and business windows throughout the valley, which read: “Just Say No to EPA.”

“They welcomed us in the ’80s to do some cleanup, never anticipating that decades later we’d still be around,” says EPA Region 10 project manager Cami Grandinetti. “We’re sort of like a bad house guest. The problem is, this isn’t an easy mess to clean up.”

Meanwhile, there is a small but vocal minority of community activists who say that despite 17 years and millions of dollars spent on cleanup, and millions more spent on public health studies—whose titles alone fill 80 pages—no medical treatment or counseling has ever been provided to the tens of thousands of Silver Valley residents who suffer the severe and often irreversible health effects of living in a valley heavily contaminated with lead, arsenic and other heavy metals.

Leading their charge is Barbara Miller, a single mother whose dogged pursuit of comprehensive medical care for injured valley residents has made her the target of hostility, ridicule and some say organized persecution from her own community. Miller points to numerous public health statistics that show the mostly rural and sparsely populated Shoshone County (which comprises only 1.16 percent of Idaho’s population) leads the state in five forms of cancer, infant mortality, stillbirths, school dropout rates, violent deaths among teens, and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders.

Miller’s claims are supported by one of the nation’s leading experts on lead exposure, Dr. John Rosen, a New York physician who has concluded that the exposure risks in the Silver Valley are “extreme” and that the problems being experienced there are “signature” maladies of lead and heavy metals contamination. Dr. Rosen is so disturbed by the frequency of lead-related ailments that he has donated his services to counsel and treat its victims.

But others in the community—including the supervisor of the Panhandle Health District in Kellogg—remain largely skeptical of Rosen’s conclusions. They argue that such health indicators are not the result of environmental risks, but reflect an aging, hard-living, working-class population and a demographic shift that began in 1981 when the Bunker Hill smelter, then Idaho’s largest employer, closed down, putting 2,200 employees out of work and sending the Silver Valley into an economic tailspin from which it has never fully recovered.

More importantly, critics of Miller and Rosen say that blood lead levels in the children of the Silver Valley have been steadily declining since the 1980s, hard evidence that EPA’s work is all but done there. What problems remain, they say, stem more from the label “Superfund,” which has prevented this region from escaping its tarnished reputation of the 1970s as “the valley of the damned.”

The trials and travails of the Silver Valley are hardly a new story. As Jerry Cobb, environmental health supervisor for the Panhandle Health District puts it, “We’ve been doing this for so long here. Newspaper articles? There’ve been thousands. You’re not going to write one single thing that has not been written at least 25 times. Because there’s nothing new to say. There just isn’t.”

Perhaps. But for those who say the Silver Valley still lives in a collective state of denial, there is much that remains unsaid and undone.

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