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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Silver Valley

Air Date: Week of

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In Northern Idaho's Silver Valley mining country, some residents complain the EPA has practically taken up residence. A century of mining waste coats this valley, but some residents believe the health threat is small and wish the EPA would leave. Guy Hand reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

When the Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, its mandate seemed clear, if daunting: to cleanse the nation if its of past environmental sins, to resurrect dead and dying rivers, industrial sites, and toxic towns. Yet when the EPA announced plans to expand a Superfund site in northern Idaho, many people who live there railed against the Superfund stigma being stamped on their towns and businesses. Idaho's governor threatened to throw the EPA out of the state. One resident even suggested shooting Superfund officials found trespassing on private property. From Idaho's Silver Valley, producer Guy Hand explains why the EPA's campaign to clean up a century's worth of mining debris sounds less like noble work than warfare.

HOPPER: The EPA is probably the worst thing that's ever happened to America.

HAND: Bob Hopper takes a long, hard drag on his cigarette. He owns a mine here in the Silver Valley.

HOPPER: You, as an individual, you have lost every right that you think you have. You have none because of the EPA. And the only reason that you don't know it is because nobody has jumped on you yet.

HAND: Hopper feels jumped on. EPA workers are prowling around outside his office, inspecting his waste water line.


HAND: And that's got the veins in Hopper's neck bulging, and his dog barking. This mine, the Bunker Hill mine, was once one of the most productive silver mines in the world. Now, it's part of a Superfund site. And even though Hopper didn't own the mine during its polluting heyday, he's inherited its toxic legacy. It's an inheritance he thinks he doesn't deserve.

HOPPER: You have to understand, there is no private property as far as the EPA is concerned. They have things called unilateral administrative orders, and all they have to do is issue you one. They can come right through the middle of your house.


HAND: To understand why 20 years ago the EPA declared a large chunk of the Silver Valley the Bunker Hill Superfund site, why they now plan to expand that site to an area of Idaho larger than Yosemite, and why locals are so upset, it helps to get underground. In the dark, the complicated history of western mining is easier to see.


HAND: As the rail car descends through level after level, you begin to see the sheer size of the undertaking. You begin to see how the hundreds of mines that dot this steep-walled valley could pull more than five billion dollars worth of silver and other minerals, out of these mountains, and how they could bring prosperity to isolated towns, build schools and hospitals. And how a mere hole in the ground could sprout a fierce, unconditional kind of loyalty.


GROTH: We just came in a little over two miles, and we're in the area now that's called the load-out area. This is kind of the heart of the mine.

HAND: Jon Groth is too young to have worked here during the Valley's boom times, but his grandfather did. So did his father, until he died in a mining accident. Still, Groth likes it down here, surrounded by cool, wet stone.


GROTH: This is where the hoist operator spent his day. Right now, this hoist is much larger than anything we need, so for now, it's just kind of on standby here. We've got it in mothballs.

HAND: You can see a mix of pride and sadness on Groth's face. You see it on lots of faces here in the Silver Valley; a pride in having been at one time part of the most productive silver mining region in the world, a sadness that it's gone. Some blame the EPA, yet not all the region's miners feel good about the work they did here.

PIEKARSKI: I spent 27 years and 23 days in that hellhole.

HAND: Eighty-six year old Pete Piekarski worked in the smelter during the boom times.

PIEKARSKI: They polluted this valley for all the years that that smelter operated. As soon as you'd get on swing shift, they'd kick up the air blast and the valley would fill plumb full of smoke. Wake up the next morning, and from here to St. Marie's was smoke. So they polluted this valley steady from 1917 until the day they, until they shut down.

HAND: What finally brought the valley's pollution problem to national attention was the bag house fire of September, 1974. The bag house was the smelter's smoke filtration system, and Mitch Killebrew saw it catch fire.

KILLEBREW: And we were out on the track field when the bag house went up.

HAND: He was just a kid then, attending school a stone's throw from the burning building.

KILLEBREW: And it just turned this whole area here just black, just black, you know? And they just had us go into the school. I mean hey, you could hardly, you could hardly breathe. It was terrible.

HAND: Huge clouds of lead-tainted smoke erupted from the smelter's stacks, but Gulf Resources, the Texas-based company that owned the Bunker Hill mine at the time, just kept the smelter running.

OSBORN: The board of directors for Gulf Resources met, and we know what they did, because they actually wrote it down in their board minutes. They calculated how much it would cost per child if they got caught polluting the community.

HAND: John Osborn is a physician who's worked to clean up mining pollution for years. He says children are most vulnerable to lead poisoning.

OSBORN: And they used the figure of $4,000 per kid, according to their notes. And they concluded they stood to make a lot of money if they continued operating. So they did. And the result was this incredible amount of lead was dispersed over these people's homes, over their yards. And by April, some of the highest lead levels ever recorded in children were being recorded in the families of those people who lived downwind from the smokestacks.

HAND: It took months before the state of Idaho, a mining-dependent state, shut the smelter down. By that time, an estimated 20 years' worth of unfiltered heavy metals had rained down on mining communities. In 1983, the EPA declared a 21-square-mile rectangle within the Silver Valley, an immediate health emergency and a Superfund site.


HAND: But lead-tainted air wasn't the only problem. The valley's metallic past has left behind mountains of mining debris. It's heaped on the banks of creeks and rivers. It clogs old mines. And with every rain, those heavy metals flush downstream. That's why the EPA frequently inspects mine owner Bob Hopper's waste water line, despite his resentment.

GRANDINETTI: That water needs to be treated. It's at a pH of about two.

HAND: Cami Grandinetti is an EPA Project manager. She believes there are compelling reasons why the agency frequently visits Bob Hopper's mine.

GRANDINETTI: And just to put this in perspective, the load of zinc that comes out of that mine untreated is the single largest source of metal load to the river, to the entire system, in the entire basin.

HAND: Millions of pounds of heavy metals flow from Silver Valley mines every year. They kill fish, plant life, water foul, and threaten human health all the way into Washington state. That's why the EPA wants to expand its Superfund site through the whole watershed, the Coeur d' Alene Basin. But the communities including in this new plan don't want the headaches they've seen inflicted on the Bunker Hill site. Cami Grandinetti.

GRANDINETTI: When we first showed up doing our investigation in the 80s, there was not the intense negative feeling about EPA. There was really a sense that things had gone wrong at the smelter, that there was a lot of lead contamination that was hurting the local populations, and people were happy that we were there, and doing something about cleaning up the area.

HAND: But after years of Superfund work, years of bulldozers and bureaucrats, many locals lost patience with the EPA.

GRANDINETTI: It's so in their face. It's happening in their yards. It's happening at the complex. The mines are shutting down, and EPA is right on the tails of all of that. So it's easy to point to EPA and the environmental cleanup as the source of the problem.

HAND: A local writer literally targeted the EPA as the source of the problem when he wrote a fiery editorial in the local paper.

GRANDINETTEI: Where he recommended that people arm themselves, and shoot EPA and state people if they tried to come on their property.

A sign posted at the entrance to Silver Valley mine.
(Photo: Guy Hand)


HAND: David Bond is the freelance writer who wrote that, and many other anti-EPA articles. He sits on a barstool in one of his favorite Silver Valley hangouts.

BOND: I said it tongue in cheek, but you know, bloody hell. Whatever it takes. These guys are Nazis. They're coming in here like a bunch of Gestapo, jack-booted thugs, and are screwing over people that are my friends.

HAND: Bond takes a sip of beer. He's tired of this fight and it shows. He says everybody in the Silver Valley is tired, afflicted with a kind of Superfund fatigue.

BOND: God damn it, don't misunderstand me, okay? The original EPA guys that came up here to do this cleanup were decent, honorable people. And I swear to god [laughter] if you don't include this, I'll hunt you down and kill ya. They were good, good people. What you've got now is a bunch of little Gestapo and I, I would not suggest that anybody not use any means available constitutionally or otherwise, to oppose them.

HAND: Bond, and other EPA critics, believe the agency has overstated the environmental and health threats present in the Silver Valley, labeling it, in Bond's words, the Valley of Death, merely to keep themselves employed. Ron Roizen, another EPA critic, agrees.

ROIZEN: When you create a national bureaucracy or a national institute organized around a problem, there is a tendency for that research to exaggerate and enhance the scope of problems that it purports to be addressing, because that institution has to beg for money from Congress.

HAND: Roizen says he's ploughed through a mountain of the EPA's own documentation to come up with that conclusion. He's confident that lead poisoning poses no risk to his eleven-year-old daughter. In fact, he plans to defy the EPA if they try to remove the soil from his yard.

ROIZEN: Now, if they come here, I'll tell you right now, they can't do my property. I refuse. I'm just going to flat-out refuse.

HAND: EPA toxicologist Marc Stifelman doesn't understand people like Roizen. He says there's overwhelming scientific evidence that proves a health risk to children in this watershed.

STIFELMAN: It's just silly to argue about lead health effects.

HAND: He says the data the EPA uses to justify its Superfund program are widely accepted.

STIFELMAN: They're accepted by CDC. They're accepted by EPA, ATSDR, the World Health Organization. They're accepted by the AMA and the Academy for Pediatrics.

HAND: Stifelman says the effects of lead poisoning are seldom obvious – lowering IQ and other cognitive functions in real, but subtle ways.

STIFELMAN: Because the effects are subtle and somewhat silent in nature, you can deny their existence, but there is really no scientific basis to that today.

HAND: Yet Roizen is unconvinced. He says you only have to look outside to see the truth.

ROIZEN: And I would actually ask you to just look out the window. I mean, if you look out the window and you see this lovely, beautiful, green, lush and historically rich town and the valley it's in, it just doesn't ring. I mean, it doesn't ring that you're in a Superfund site.


HAND: Yet there are people in this valley who see plenty of environmental problems.

MILLER: On the left what we're seeing, this little knoll, it's where the Bunker Hill Mine and Smelter dump their raw mine waste.

HAND: Barbara Miller is driving through Kellogg Idaho, past a mile and a quarter long mound of mining debris – 70,000 tons of cadmium, arsenic, mercury and lead. It sits smack in the middle of town, and right on the banks of the Coeur d' Alene River.

MILLER: Technical advisors have pointed out to us that EPA's containment of this site is not acceptable; that it's causing leaching, still, into the river.

HAND: She believes the Silver Valley is filled with similar examples of how the EPA has not overstated the problems, but in many cases minimized them.

MILLER: I think that EPA is allowing the politics and the special interests to set the agenda. I believe that the tourism industry that is strongly backed by the mining industry, are having their say with mostly what does not get done here.

HAND: Miller says the EPA has set standards for the clean-up much lower here than they set them in other Superfund sites; that they haven't cleaned up the interior of homes. That they even hesitate to put up signs warning children not to play in contaminated soils.

For her activism, the national press has called her the Erin Brockovich of north Idaho. The Ford Foundation has awarded her organization a large grant. But here in the Silver Valley, her home, she gets less praise.

MILLER: I've been jailed.

HAND: Miller says she's been jailed, received death threats, had people sneak into her yard and destroy property, even steal her dog. All because she wants the EPA to do the job it's been mandated to do. But Dick Martindale of the EPA thinks the agency is doing exactly what it's been mandated to do.

MARTINDALE: There are entire towns that are cleaned up now. I mean, they are now safe to human health. And what more can you ask for? Ecologically we're going to be cleaning up areas that are going to improve the fisheries. It's going to improve water foul habitat. It's just unreal. It's just an absolute benefit for the greatest number of people over the longest period of time, and we're in it for the long haul.


HAND: For the EPA, the long haul is another 30 years. That's the additional time it wants to take to clean these rivers, streams and mountain towns. For the agency's critics, that's far too long. And now they'll have a say. EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman recently agreed to hand majority control of the project to a commission dominated by Idaho political interests. It's an unprecedented move that will likely limit the scope of the cleanup. Yet scientists say 30 years is nothing. Time, when it comes to hard rock mining, is better expressed geologically. They estimate that cleansing this watershed of toxins could take 500 years. From the mines of north Idaho, I'm Guy Hand for Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Ry Cooder “Canoes Upstream” Music By Ry Cooder BMI (1981)]



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