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Know the West

Downsized cleanup plan for Idaho Superfund site


The mines of Silver Valley, Idaho, east of Coeur d'Alene Lake were once the richest silver producers in the world. The valley's flush days, however, are long gone. In 1981, thousands of miners lost their jobs when the sinking price of silver forced the mines to close (a few have since reopened). Two years later, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the area poisoned -- a federal Superfund site -- and the valley was stamped with an ugly stigma its residents have resented ever since. 

For locals, the EPA's declaration that their valley and lake were among the most polluted areas in the world felt like a hard poke in a sore bruise. Since the closure of the mines, residents have been focused on reviving the region's economy, with tourism as a mainstay. Needless to say, being known for having a wealth of sullied ground isn't good for marketing. 

But no matter how unkind it has felt to be labeled one of the most polluted places in the world, the moniker was, and unfortunately remains, true. Mines from the upper basin have washed 100 million tons of waste into the Coeur d’Alene river, the EPA estimates. Locals in the valley have some of the highest recorded blood-levels of lead measured in humans. Children are especially susceptible to the high lead levels. Fish are unable to survive and reproduce in about 20 miles of streams in the basin. There is virtually no aquatic life in about 10 of those miles. Some hillsides are tainted with lead and so acidic that planted trees die or remain stunted saplings.

As the EPA finished up work on the initially designated Bunker Hill Box site, it cast its eyes west, over the entire 1,500-square mile basin. When the agency expanded the Superfund site in 1998, outcry was loud and cranky. And so it remains.

This February, the EPA released a new version of its cleanup plan for Silver Valley. Responding to nearly 7,000 comments from a public eager to get on with their lives, the agency is proposing spending $740 million over 20 to 30 years. Its original, more comprehensive plan called for $1.3 billion over more than 50 years and would have cleaned 342 mine sites, a good deal more than the 197 now proposed. The Idaho Legislature, which does not have a reputation for cooperating with the EPA, responded by debating a resolution to request the agency finish the cleanup within five years. The resolution, later tabled, accused the EPA of crippling the region's development through its Superfund designation, "based upon highly questionable scientific data." 

The cleanup, under the revised plan, is set to begin this summer. The total project will require a huge number of workers – some of whom will likely receive training under a new program designed to help the people of the Coeur d'Alene Basin and the EPA get along. Though funded by the EPA, the Technical Assistance Services for Communities program , or TASC, acts independently to help locals understand and get involved in the cleanup. TASC held its first meetings in Silver Valley this week, introducing its educational and job-training services to the public. This step comes as the EPA seeks to respond to requests from residents who want more information about the agency's activities, without interacting directly with the EPA.

While Silver Valley residents may complain about the Superfund stigma, the EPA's efforts bring a huge flow of cash and jobs into the region. The EPA has spent hundreds of thousands on street maintenance and nearly $20 million in flood control and city projects. But, even in communities where the EPA's cleanup programs are initially welcomed, projects have a way of becoming unpopular as they expand or drag on. And some now wonder if, after all of these years, the real needs of the community and environment will ever be met.

"It is unfortunate that the EPA caved in to pressure from Idaho and sliced the cleanup nearly in half," Mike Petersen of The Lands Council told the Associated Press. "The legacy of heavy metals contamination will continue, however, and Lake Coeur d'Alene and the Spokane River will have poorer water quality than under the original plan." 

Danielle Venton is an intern at High Country News.
Image of Lake Coeur d'Alene courtesy of Jami Dwyer/Flickr.