« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Pollution in paradise

A robust service economy can't bury mining's toxic waste

 

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho - To reach the 14th hole at the Coeur d'Alene Resort in northern Idaho you need nerves of steel - and a boat. The golf green sits on the blue waters of Lake Coeur d'Alene, a miniature island tied to shore by an underwater tether.

"It's the only floating green in the world," boasts Jerry Jaeger, president and co-owner of Hagadone Leisure Co., which operates the 337-room resort.

Besides providing a dramatic golfing challenge, the green is a technological marvel, says Jaeger. Any excess fertilizer gets caught and pumped through pipes back to the shore to avoid polluting the lake.

"We've gone way beyond any requirements," says Jaeger, noting that his resort won the Urban Land Institute's "most ecologically sensitive development" award in 1993. "As you can imagine, we care a great deal about the quality of the lake's water."

What Jaeger doesn't mention is his resort's less publicized claim to fame: It sits on the shores of what may be the world's largest toxic stew. Thanks to a century of silver, lead and zinc mining in the 120-mile-long "Silver Valley," parts of Lake Coeur d'Alene's bottom are smothered by an 11-inch layer of contaminated sediment - 75 million tons in all, by one estimate.

Along with old golf balls, the fine silty clay is laced with lead, cadmium, zinc and other dangerous heavy metals that have bled down from the mountains above the lake. Though most of the mines and smelters are closed, hundreds of abandoned mineshafts and mounds of tailings - the rock refuse left over from mining - lie hidden in the hills. Every time it rains, runoff, made more torrential by eroded, logged hillsides, flows through the mine sites, picks up metals and spreads them downstream. The polluted waters flow down the Coeur d'Alene River, and what doesn't settle in the river eventually reaches Lake Coeur d'Alene, some 50 miles downstream.

Don't tell that to the thousands of people who swim, fish and even drink the lake's waters. No dead bodies float on the sparkling waters; everything looks just fine. Were it not for a few posted signs warning people to go easy on fish consumption and avoid touching the dried mud along the Coeur d'Alene River, most people would never guess that the post-mining civilization is being built on a foundation of poisonous debris.

And, in Jaeger's view, there's no need to stir things up, either psychologically or physically.

"I drink lake water, and I've never had any ill health effects," he says. "I've never even had a hotel guest ask me about mining pollution in the lake. I don't deny that it's there, but I've been told by knowledgeable people that it is buried deep and is basically inert."

The 1,450-member Coeur d'Alene tribe, whose reservation nestles against the lake's southern shore, have a different perspective. For the past decade, the tribe's environmental staffers have worked hard to create public concern. With the help of federal dollars, they have gathered and commissioned hundreds of reports and studies showing that the metals are not all safely buried in sediments, especially when the waters are stirred by floods. Some of the data are visible to the eye: dead birds, and wetlands where only one species of plant can live. Then there are the devastated fisheries and the elevated lead-levels in the bloodstreams of some children in small towns.

"People can't believe there's a problem when it looks so good," says Phil Cernera, 37, a biologist for the Coeur d'Alene tribe. "But we've got levels of lead in the lower river that are 4,000 times background levels. Every beach is basically a redeposited tailings pile."

Armed with information, the tribe and a handful of environmentalists have pushed hard for a basinwide cleanup that could involve everything from removing tailings piles to dredging up toxic hotspots in the river and the lake.

But no one has stepped up to the tee. EPA officials say a lack of money forces them to concentrate on airborne pollution within one specific area in Idaho - the 21-mile-long Bunker Hill Superfund site near Kellogg. The state of Idaho used several million dollars from a settled lawsuit with several mining companies to clean and restore a few small sections of stream above the Superfund site (see sidebar). But it's a drop in the bucket. And the four companies that still mine in the area say that while they are willing to fund some cleanup projects, they won't accept full responsibility for a mess created largely by now-defunct companies.

The tribe is not giving up. It has sued the mining companies for hundreds of millions of cleanup dollars. Last spring, lawyers from the federal Department of Justice filed a similar suit. If the lawsuits succeed, the watershed could become the locus of one of the most massive restoration efforts ever undertaken to rectify the damage caused by mining.

The uncertainties are many. Even if substantial cleanup money is found, no one knows if the Silver Valley can be fixed: The technology doesn't exist yet, and a comprehensive cleanup seems impossible given pollution's presence in every nook and cranny of the ecosystem. The pervasive pollution here could well take centuries to work its way out.

Polluted, top to bottom

The best way to grasp the magnitude of the Silver Valley's pollution problem and the changing face of its human settlements is to start at the top of the watershed and work down.

Heading west from 4,700-foot Lookout Pass, among the evergreen-clad mountains on the Montana/Idaho border, terraces of yellow mine tailings stick out here and there from the steep slopes. These are the highest sources of pollution in the basin, and the heavy metals they leak flow downhill, joining forces with pollution simultaneously leaking from hundreds of sites below.

Though the mines are scattered through the mountains, most are near water, says Stu Levitt, a spokesman for the Coeur d'Alene tribe. The mines needed water for processing ore, he says, "and the most convenient way to get rid of tailings was to pop them in the river."

About 20 miles west of the border, the grade flattens at the town of Wallace, elevation 3,500. Just above here, up Canyon Creek, lies a major source of pollution, the abandoned Hecla mill in the town of Burke. Built in 1912, the complex looms like the set of a futuristic movie. It's hard to imagine that two railroad lines once ran up this narrow canyon and that thousands of men labored deep inside the mountain walls.

Though the mill has been closed for several years, it hasn't stopped polluting. Every day, a stream that runs under the mill picks up and carries hundreds of pounds of heavy metals down through Wallace and eventually into the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River. A three-mile stretch of stream below the mill is the site of one of the few restoration efforts in the Silver Valley (see sidebar page 12).

Fifteen years ago when mining crashed, Wallace became a ghost town, and you could buy a small house for under $10,000. Today, it's a popular tourist stop, and new people have started fixing up the houses.

The story is much the same 10 miles farther down the road in Kellogg, where the valley widens and the mountains become rounded. Despite bearing the stigma of a town located in the 21-mile-long Bunker Hill Superfund site (named after the biggest mine in Kellogg - the one miners affectionately called "Uncle Bunker"), Kellogg looks more like a quaint Swiss resort than a down-and-out mining town.

Just outside town, near the mining museum, a giant tram runs tourists and skiers up into the hills. Summer music concerts at the nearby ski resort attract thousands. Here, mining merely provides a quaint historic context for a growing tourist and recreation-based economy.

But a century of heavy-metal pollution has left its mark in the blood of children who grew up here. When health officials first tested for blood-lead in Kellogg's children in 1974, they found levels 6.5 times higher than today's "level of concern" established by the Environmental Protection Agency. That same year, house dust averaged 10 times the level of concern, with yard soil not far behind.

High lead levels can lead to coma, convulsions and death; lower levels may damage the nervous system, interfere with growth, harm hearing and retard learning.

These concerns led mining officials to build two huge smelter stacks in Kellogg in the late 1970s. The idea was to disperse the pollution beyond the surrounding hills, but the stacks turned out to be more curse than blessing, as weather inversions often forced the pollution down into the town.

At one point, fire destroyed half the bags in the baghouse, the main pollution collection device of the lead and silver smelter. Rather than close the smelter, Gulf Resources and Chemical Corp. (not to be confused with Gulf Oil) compared projected earnings to the money it could lose in lawsuits. Gulf executives decided profits would be bigger. In 18 months, more than 20 years' worth of pollution fell like an invisible rain over the area.

Two families later sued Gulf Resources for $20 million in damages and in 1981 received an out-of-court settlement for their children of between $6.5 million and $8.8 million.

But soon after, the corporation began funneling most of its money overseas, much of it into New Zealand real estate, and filed bankruptcy in a U.S. court. Little can be recovered, apparently, for either cleanup or pensions owed.

Jerry Cobb, environmental health specialist with the Panhandle Health District, says he can't tell area residents how the exposure affected their health. Tests on men who worked at the smelter between 1940 and 1965, however, showed they died from kidney disease at a rate four times higher than normal. Deaths from kidney cancer were double the normal rate, and deaths from stroke were one-and-a-half times the normal rate. Results of a new study on long-time area residents are expected next year, he says.

It's healthier to live in Kellogg today, because federal officials have removed much of the original soil from residential areas and capped many yards with plastic sheets covered with clean soil. Building codes that will remain in effect forever make it illegal to break the plastic barriers.

Even so, people living in Kellogg may still be receiving metals exposure, says Cobb. Tests in 1994 found that nearly one-fifth of the children had blood-lead levels greater than normal.

Meanwhile, a whole new group of people - including retirees from California and other urban centers - are moving to the Kellogg area. Cobb says he and other health officials have tried to raise red flags to developers and county and town officials about the potential dangers of building in areas outside the Superfund site.

It has been hard to get their attention.

Says Cobb, "I guess for the newcomers, lead lying in the ground is less hazardous than lead moving towards them at 3,000 feet per second in the form of a bullet fired on a Los Angeles street corner."

Not a basket case

While the effects of mining are plain to see in the upper basin, they are more subtle in the lower basin, which encompasses the 30-mile stretch from Kellogg down to Lake Coeur d'Alene, 2,500 feet above sea level.

No one disputes that the 1,200 pounds of heavy metals flowing out of the Superfund site every day have killed the Coeur d'Alene River for at least three miles, until water entering it from Pine Creek dilutes the toxic stew. But there are different views on the condition of the river below this confluence.

"I've seen headlines in the paper saying the whole system is dead," says Geoffrey Harvey, senior service water analyst with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality in Coeur d'Alene. "You can't convince folks of that who have pulled fish out of the river."

While Harvey concedes the lower river doesn't provide much fish habitat, he blames that on sedimentation rather than heavy metals. He says the river continues to function as a migratory area for kokanee salmon and cutthroat trout and supports a top-notch bass fishery. And although the state doesn't think everything is fine in the lower stretches of the South Fork, Harvey says, "It's also not a basket case. It's somewhere in between."

The Coeur d'Alene tribe has a vastly different view. Standing next to the river near a sand beach that has tables and trash cans for picnickers, Phil Cernera, who coordinates the tribe's Natural Resource Damage Assessment team, says he can't believe the state would invite people to come play on a lead-contaminated beach and boat ramp.

"They're treating people like guinea pigs," he says, pointing to a prominent wooden sign which warns that the heavy metals in the water and sand can be hazardous to human health. Cernera says the river certainly kills fish. Federal researchers found that fingerlings exposed to South Fork water died within 96 hours. Cernera thinks no one sees any dead bodies because there are so few fish left to die.

"The mines say it is healthy and thriving for wildlife and fish," he says. "That's not what we're finding."

The heavy metals have killed more than fish. Between 1992 and 1995, wildlife officials found about 60 dead animals in the lower basin that all tested positive for lead poisoning. Many were elegant tundra swans. Tribal and U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists say about 600 more poisoned animals probably died but were not found.

Cernera says most of us don't realize what we are looking at, and points to what looks like a thriving wetland lining both sides of the interstate. It is actually a contaminated dump, two miles long and 30 feet deep, he says, with Fragmenties, an introduced five-foot-tall metal-resistant grass, the only thing growing there.

"No wildlife lives in that grass," Cernera says.

At Lane Marsh, in a series of "lateral lakes" just above Lake Coeur d'Alene, a white speck sits on the water - a lone tundra swan. The thousands of swans that stop at the lakes on their way north have long departed. "This straggler will most likely die," Cernera predicts. The swans ingest lead when they pull up food from the bottom. Besides tundra and trumpeter swans, Cernera says, a host of other species, including mink, ducks, ospreys, marsh hawk, Canada geese, mice, voles, cutthroat trout, yellow perch and brown bullhead, are poisoned by metals.

Still, state officials maintain that the number of animals that die from metals poisoning is tiny compared to the thousands of waterfowl and other migratory birds that visit the area. "Some swans and geese do die here from lead poisoning," Harvey points out, "but they all don't die."

To dredge or not to dredge

If the severity of the Silver Valley's pollution problem can start an argument, talk about solutions can provoke outright hostility - even in places where there seems to be agreement.

Everyone, for instance, agrees that the runoff from tailings along the South Coeur d'Alene River and its tributaries in the upper basin needs to be shut off. But how? The mining companies say the waste rock can largely be stabilized on site, then capped and revegetated. The tribe says the mined rock needs to be removed.

These differences, though, seem minor compared to the issues surrounding cleanup in the lower basin.

When the Coeur d'Alene tribe first calculated the cost of a basinwide cleanup, it came up with a hefty $1 billion. Almost half of that total was for one activity - dredging contaminated sediments from the lower river and the lake.

After shaking off their initial price shock, mining officials set about debunking dredging. They found evidence that digging up the sediments would release heavy metals back into the water, further endangering people and wildlife. State officials backed them.

"The tailings in the lower river are the consistency of silt. Removing them would create a big mess in a hurry," says state water-quality expert Harvey. "The best thing to do is to shut off the sources up river, and over time new sediment from the North Fork (which joins the South Fork a few miles below the Superfund site and has not been heavily mined) will eventually bury the older contaminated stuff."

Tribal officials now acknowledge that dredging all of the lake may be unnecessary. Their most recent cost estimate for a basin cleanup has dropped to between $500 million and $600 million. But Cernera says dredging may still be appropriate in some portions of the river, especially below the town of Cataldo, where the waters slow down and dump much of their sediment load. New dredging technologies literally suck up sediments without creating much of a stir, he says.

"We're researching every place where dredging has ever been done to see what our options are," Cernera says. "We think the metals in the lower river and the lake are still a threat."

"Phil won't be happy until we get rid of every bit of tailings in the whole system," says Holly Houston, a spokeswoman for three of the remaining mining companies in the Silver Valley - Hecla Mining Co., Asarco Inc., and the Sunshine Mining Co. "But this is not a billion-dollar problem."

Houston says the mining companies have already promised $40 million to clean up contaminated yards within the Bunker Hill site. And they have voluntarily started stabilizing several waste rock piles along the river. A $500 million project to address the whole basin would bankrupt the companies, she says.

"Hecla hasn't made a profit in seven years, and Asarco already has numerous Superfund sites," says Houston. "The price of silver is down from $6 an ounce to only $4.50 an ounce. You're unlikely to see even $50 to $100 million from the companies."

A litigious solution

The companies may be forced to dish out that much money or more, however, when the courts eventually rule on the two lawsuits brought against them by the tribe and the federal government. The suits each seek nearly $1 billion.

Tribal officials say they had no choice but to go after the companies through the courts. The one entity set up to deal with pollution outside the Superfund site - the Coeur d'Alene Basin Restoration Project, created by the federal government in 1983 when it designated the Bunker Hill Superfund site - has proven to be a paper tiger. While more than $100 million has been spent cleaning up the Superfund site, the basin project spends only hundreds of thousands on baseline research - such as identifying toxic hotspots and potential repositories. Little actual cleanup work is being done, says Stu Levitt, the tribe's representative on the project.

Tribal press secretary Robert Bostwick say the only cleanup work ever done on the river basin outside the Superfund site is being funded by a settlement with the state of Idaho initiated by a lawsuit against the mines. And the only reason industry is now taking some small steps to clean up their lands, he says, is because of litigation.

The companies have countersued the federal government, claiming it should be held responsible for much of the pollution since it failed for decades to regulate mining wastes.

"The pollution is a tragedy, but it happened when society wasn't concerned about the environment," says Houston. "People weren't thinking about saving birds and trees, and there were no laws protecting the environment when mining began. That isn't an excuse for the pollution, but it's not right to expect the few companies that haven't gone bankrupt to pay for it all."

The companies have also turned to Congress for relief. A bill introduced by Sen. Larry Craig, R, would have limited the amount of money the companies have to put toward mining restoration. Though it died in the last session, it will undoubtedly surface again next year.

Bostwick says the mining companies should stop fighting and start negotiating. The billion-dollar cleanup they are so afraid of could actually be accomplished if all the parties sat down with a spirit of cooperation, he says, and it might not be that financially painful. An interest-bearing trust fund of $150 million could pay for cleanup activities for 20 to 50 years in the Silver Valley, he says.

"We wouldn't know what to do with a billion dollars all at one time even if we had it," says Bostwick. "It's hard to spend more than $10 million in a year."

The money for such a trust fund could come from the mining companies and the state and federal governments, he says, and "the tribe would even chip in some of its own."

Out of sight, but not mind

The smelter stacks at the Bunker Hill Superfund site are gone. Last Memorial Day, as military jets saluted overhead and people danced in the streets, federal officials toppled the four phallic monuments - the largest 715 feet tall - like trees into pits, and buried them.

It was a symbolic end to the mining era, but symbols alone cannot heal the Silver Valley. Nor will a robust tourism economy ever completely bury the pollution of a century. If the Silver Valley is to recover within a few generations, people will have to intervene in a big way. And that will require big bucks.

"It took us 100 years to pollute this place, and it may take us at least that long to remedy it," says Cernera. "Doing nothing, though, is unacceptable."

Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Montana. Paul Larmer is an associate editor with HCN.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Piling a new economy on the old

- River cleanup is slow, expensive and maybe hopeless

- Sacred lands shouldn't smell

- A tribe that takes the high road

- Logging, floods push metals downstream