CANYON CREEK, Idaho - Thick mud gushes beneath Marti Calabretta's high rubber boots as she walks from her office, a much-used house trailer, to the dirty pickup truck. The raw landscape looks like a construction site before the pouring of a foundation, but Calabretta doesn't seem to mind. As coordinator for the Silver Valley Natural Resource Trust Fund, she is used to mucking around.
Calabretta directs the biggest
mining cleanup project in the Silver Valley - a three-mile stretch
of Canyon Creek, which is one of the most polluted tributaries of
the Coeur d'Alene River. Researchers have measured zinc levels here
200 times the federal standard for protecting aquatic life.
"It will be about 10 to 15
years before the wetlands begin to recover," " Calabretta
Last winter, Calabretta's crews removed
500,000 cubic yards of zinc- and lead-laced tailings here that
stood 20 feet deep in places. Workers excavated until they came
down to massive cedar stumps, remnants of an old swamp. The stumps
signified the existence of organic soil. There is no aquatic life
in the stream, and vegetation is scarce.
"Every now and then we'll see
a bug of some type and get pretty excited about it," " says the
former state senator as she wrestles the truck over bumps and
Crews have built pools in the
streambed to slow flooding and provide fish habitat. Wetlands on
the flood plain have been seeded with metal-resistant grasses and
mulched, while about 550 cedar stumps will be scattered to provide
The contaminated soil, including an
estimated 80,000 tons of lead and 1,500 tons of zinc, was trucked
to a repository carved into a nearby hillside. An eight-foot layer
of streambed cobblestones lines the bottom of the repository so
groundwater can flow under and not through it. The tailings on top
are compacted and capped so that water will not permeate it.
"It's like a brick sitting on
top of a rock above the 100-year flood plain," " Calabretta says.
Estimated cost of the Canyon Creek project is
$3 million, about $1 million per creek-mile. Most of the money
comes from a 1986 settlement between the state of Idaho and several
mining companies operating here. The state settled for $4.5 million
after the Idaho state Legislature refused to fund a legal
Thus far, the trust fund is the only
source of money for cleanup projects on the watershed outside the
federal Superfund site.
Even with all the work,
Calabretta isn't sure the project will restore fish habitat or stop
more pollution from flushing downstream. She calls the project "a
demonstration" that will provide valuable baseline data for future
restoration projects, should money become available.
Tribal officials like much of Calabretta's
stream and wetland restoration, but tribal biologist Phil Cernera
says it may be a wasted effort.
"You've still got all that
contamination coming out of the Burke Mine site (three miles above
the project)," " he says. "That's going to continue coming
downstream and contaminate this area again."
But Calabretta has no authority to force Hecla Mining Co. to clean
up the Burke Mill, and the trust fund will be spent by the turn of
the century. She says she has chosen cleanup sites based on the
cooperation of landowners and the cost effectiveness of the
It is a piecemeal approach, she
admits, but at least some work is getting done.