Old Mines Pose New Hazards in Cleanup

Battle of Bunker Hill lives, in form of fight over Idaho smelter

In Kellogg, Idaho, this weekend, there's a contest to see who gets to blow up a bit of local history.

First prize in a drawing organized by the "Blowing Our Stacks Committee" will be the opportunity to push the button that destroys the 71-story smoke stack at a smelter here. The second-prize winner gets to trigger the explosion bringing down the 60-story stack at the nearby zinc plant.

The dust and rubble will symbolize the end of 100 years of Western history - a rowdy and robust era when the mining of silver and lead made this region prosperous, but left an environmental legacy of poisoned earth and water.

The remains of the Bunker Hill metals processing plants and the 21-square-mile area around Kellogg are the second-largest toxic-waste site in the country, under the federal cleanup program called Superfund. (The largest is a copper mine in Butte, Mont.) These sites are the most prominent examples of hundreds of played-out and abandoned mines across the West, many of which pose pollution problems.

For decades, the soon-to-be-destroyed smoke stacks here spewed out fumes that contained lead and other potentially dangerous substances. Wastes were dumped directly into rivers.

Even when that stopped in 1968, rain water and snow melt drained heavy metals from the piles of mill tailings and mine waste into nearby streams.

Cleanup and restoration specialists under contract with the Environmental Protection Agency have been dismantling the smelter and other facilities. They've also dug up the soil in hundreds of residential properties exposed to dangerous pollutants and replaced it with new topsoil over a layer of plastic sheeting.

"There are healthy signs now," says Iris Byrne, who's lived in Kellogg for eight years and has worked at the nearby Sunshine Mine before starting her woodworking business. "I see a lot of worms and things crawling around in my yard."

The smelter and other facilities were shut down in 1981, but the cleanup job is far from done.

Just across Interstate 90 from the Bunker Hill site, above which the hillsides bear the scars of industrial mining, the runoff into the south fork of the Coeur d'Alene River still is a rusty orange. Health specialists note improving indicators among people who have been exposed to the soil, the dust in carpets, and the other places where microscopic particles of dangerous pollutants persist.

"It's true that the lead levels are coming down," says Barbara Miller, head of the People's Action Coalition, a local group of about 125 members pushing for a "Lead Health Intervention Center." "But last year 59 kids had elevated lead levels, and there are three times as many kids here in special education than the state average."

(Federal health officials say the presence of lead above levels considered safe by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is thought to cause learning disabilities as well as serious physical problems. In 1992, officials significantly lowered the "acceptable" level of lead in children's blood. A year later, the National Research Council reported "growing evidence that even very small exposures to lead can produce subtle effects in humans," and it suggested that the acceptable level might be reduced even further.)

Mrs. Miller, who has four children, grew up here. "Many days coming to school I remember covering my face because the lead smoke hurt your eyes," she says. "You couldn't see, and the waters ran a milkish white."

Darcy Nordquist, who graduated from Kellogg High School in 1986 and now owns Bodine's Bar and Grill down the road in Cataldo, Idaho, says, "It's always been a joke around here that whenever people do ignorant things, we'd say 'you're leaded.'"

It's not funny now, however, and Ms. Nordquist worries about her own 8-year-old daughter, Chelsea - especially since the Coeur d'Alene River flooded her home and business this past winter.

In addition to the Superfund-mandated cleanup here, which slowed down a bit recently when Congress tightened the EPA's budget, there is the broader issue of mining's impact on the whole Coeur d'Alene River basin - and perhaps beyond.

In March, the United States Justice Department filed a lawsuit against four major mining companies. The suit seeks payment for environmental restoration outside the Bunker Hill Superfund "box," as it's called.

"Mining and associated milling and smelting operations have resulted in massive releases of toxic metals and other hazardous substances that have injured natural resources throughout the Coeur d'Alene Basin," the suit alleges. Over the years, Justice Department officials charge, 72 million tons of mine and mill tailings containing lead, cadmium, mercury, and zinc have ended up in the Coeur d'Alene River, its tributaries, and Coeur d'Alene Lake - an area encompassing 1,500 square miles.

And even though mining operations have improved considerably since the heyday in what is called "Silver Valley," mining wastes "continue to seep into the soils and waters," the lawsuit asserts. "As a result, birds, fish, and other wildlife and their habitats, along with federally managed lands, have been damaged."

"The die-off continues, and it has continued since the 1920s," says US Fish and Wildlife biologist Daniel Audet, as he pulls the bodies of a Tundra swan, a Canada goose, and an American wigeon out of a cooler.

"There are a lot of species of waterfowl dying from lead poisoning," says Mr. Audet, who kayaks around the marshlands of Coeur d'Alene Lake in search of evidence. "And there's no indication based on mortality that it's getting any better, no indication that the wetlands are improving."

It's not just waterfowl at risk, says Audet, but other birds and animals (including bald eagles) that scavenge or prey on them.

"Health warning" signs posted near the lake by state and federal agencies read: "The Lower Coeur d'Alene River and lateral lakes are contaminated with lead and other metals from mine tailings. Small children are at greatest risk. To protect your health avoid breathing dust and touching the soil and mud. Wash hands before eating and serving foods. Do not eat large amounts of fish, waterfowl or aquatic plants. Do not drink water from the river or lakes."

The federal government estimates total environmental restoration costs to be about $600 million. Officials with the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, which has relied on the natural resources here long before the miners ever arrived, put the figure at closer to $1 billion.

The tribe, which has been studying the local ecosystem with federal scientists and environmentalists, has filed separate lawsuits to force ecological restoration.

"We used to fight with guns. Now we fight with laws and intellect," says Henry (Redbird) SiJohn, a member of the tribal council and a nationally recognized expert on environmental issues effecting native Americans.

Some restoration is taking place. Downstream from the old Hercules Mine in Burke, Idaho, John Napolitan is planting grasses, alders, and cottonwoods, using his tractor to deftly move boulders and put eddies and "meanders" back into Canyon Creek. This project is jointly sponsored by state and federal agencies and mine companies.

Mr. Napolitan worked in the mines around here for years before he began restoring the results of what his earlier profession had produced.

"It looked like Bosnia for awhile," he says, taking a break from his labors.

Environmentalists are concerned, not only about historic mining activities that caused the pollution that persists, but about current forest practices that may be making the situation worse.

In a nutshell, says John Osborn, it's "clear cuts above heavy metals."

Dr. Osborn is a physician at the Veterans Administration hospital in nearby Spokane, Wash., who spent his college summers fighting fires all around the West as a member of an elite "hotshot" crew. He also is president of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council, an environmental group.

Osborn contends that logging in the national forests here (especially the "salvage" logging pushed by lawmakers in the region) exacerbates the erosion caused by heavy rains. There are nearly 10,000 miles of logging roads scraped through the national forests of northern Idaho's "panhandle."

"If you already have floods that are pushing toxic metals into Lake Coeur d'Alene, why would you do things to make those floods worse?" he asks. And it's not just the Couer d'Alene watershed that is impacted, he warns, but the Spokane River that flows out of the lake and through the middle of the city of Spokane.

The environmental impact, Osborn says, is "kind of like an Exxon Valdez in slow motion."

Idaho's US senators, Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne, both Republicans, recently filed the Coeur d'Alene River Basin Environmental Restoration Act of 1996. Under the bill, Idaho's governor (currently Republican Phil Batt) would appoint a 13-member advisory commission representing government agencies, mining companies, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, and other interested parties. The commission would devise a restoration plan (including removal of mine waste and enhancement of wildlife habitat) and an arrangement for funding.

Companies agreeing to pay an unspecified "fair share" would be released from further financial liability. Although no dollar amounts are cited in the bill, Senator Craig says the federal government should contribute as well - particularly since Uncle Sam encouraged the mining of valuable minerals for national defense and other purposes.

"The hallmark of this legislation is local input and control," Craig says.

Critics say the proposal lacks specific cleanup goals and lets the mining companies off the hook by shifting much of the cost to taxpayers. They note that Craig and Senator Kempthorne top the list of lawmakers receiving campaign contributions from the mining industry.

In any case, says John Osborn, "it's going to take everyone in this ecosystem - on both sides of this artificial political line - to make it work."

"It's going to take a very long time," he adds, "and our successes will be measured in inches, not miles."

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