EPA wants to supersize Idaho Superfund site

State and federal officials squabble over how to clean up the Silver Valley

  • Locator map of Bunker Hill Superfund site

    Diane Sylvain

For nearly two decades, Idaho's Silver Valley has housed one of the biggest federal Superfund cleanup sites in the country. The 21-square-mile Bunker Hill Superfund Site was designated by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1983, following a 1970s mining disaster: When a fire damaged the bags in its smelter baghouses - the main pollution-collection apparatus of the lead and silver smelter - Gulf Resources and Chemical Corp. decided to maintain full production. Within 18 months, the smelter's stacks had spewed 20 years' worth of lead, cadmium, zinc and other heavy metals across the landscape and into yards and houses.

The EPA has spent $127 million digging up yards and clearing away contaminants in the soils of the Bunker Hill site over the past decade (HCN, 8/28/00: Who'll clean up a mining mess?). But even as the agency finishes this work, it has forwarded a much more ambitious plan to clean up mining wastes leaking from hundreds of Silver Valley mines stretching from the mountains above Bunker Hill down to Lake Coeur d'Alene.

The new Superfund project would cover parts of a 1,300-square-mile area in northern Idaho, a chunk of landscape two and a half times the size of Utah's Canyonlands National Park. The bill for cleanup would match the geography: an estimated $359 million over the next 30 years. Even then, the job wouldn't be finished, the EPA says. A thorough cleanup of the valley could cost $1.4 billion.

"The bottom line (for the new plan) is human health and ecological protection," says Dick Martindale of the EPA. The EPA wants to begin work by 2003, but its plan has drawn the ire of many locals, who say their communities have already suffered enough under the stigma of a Superfund designation.

They have found allies in the state government. At a public hearing in November, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne threatened to kick the EPA out of Idaho. "As the saying goes, 'Not in my house,' " Kempthorne told the crowd to a standing ovation. "The environmental ghosts of the past no longer need to haunt us."

An expensive fix

Even the governor, however, recognizes the need for continuing cleanup of the Silver Valley. Hundreds of abandoned mines lie scattered along practically every upstream tributary drainage. Heavy rains regularly flush metals from tailings piles into streams, killing all aquatic life. The streams flow into the Coeur d'Alene River, which in turn has converted Lake Coeur d'Alene into a giant tailings pond containing more than 75 million tons of contaminated soil. Some beaches and boat landings along the river are posted with signs warning the public of the poisons in the sands and soils (HCN, 11/25/96: Pollution in paradise).

During the first five years of the EPA's new plan, workers would concentrate on cleaning up more residential yards, parks and beaches, as well as treating highly contaminated surface water flowing from Canyon Creek. Thereafter, workers would perform ecological restoration, including riverbank stabilization, wetland restoration, waterfowl protection, and the improvement of fisheries and fish habitat.

State officials worry that the federal government's plan is too vague and too expensive. One state official described the EPA's potential cleanup area as stretching from "ridgeline to ridgeline" on the maps. Because the federal plan suggests that cleanup could extend beyond 30 years, they also fear the state could never pay its 10 percent share of the projected $1.4 billion Superfund bill. The Valley's remaining mining companies - ASARCO, Inc. and Hecla Mining Co. - are also concerned about a string of cleanup bills. They have already paid $40 million for the Bunker Hill cleanup.

Besides, there are other costs associated with long-term Superfund designation, state officials warn.

"The EPA plan will further contribute to the reluctance of people to invest in the local community," says Steve Allred of Idaho's Department of Environmental Quality. "The area has a 30 percent child poverty rate, one of the highest in the nation, plus double-digit unemployment. We believe one of the primary threats to health is poverty."

Economic health, he adds, is as important as the health of the environment, if not more so.

Idaho has proposed a cleanup plan that would cost $450 million but definitely conclude after 30 years. The state would allow homeowners to choose which contractors remove soil from their yards, and it would give city and county health officials the power to manage smaller cleanups.

"The state is accountable to the people it represents," says Ronald Garitone, mayor of Wallace, Idaho. "The EPA says they're only accountable to Congress."

Citizens had until the end of February to comment on the EPA's cleanup proposal; the state encouraged them to support its cheaper plan.

How deep to dig

But not all locals support the state. Barbara Miller, director of the Silver Valley's People's Action Coalition based in Shoshone County, says that Mayor Garitone is "lying through his teeth" when it comes to dismissing health risks. One-fourth of the children tested in the Coeur d'Alene Basin have shown elevated levels of lead in their blood, says Miller.

Miller and other conservationists want the EPA plan to be even more stringent. Mike Petersen of Spokane's Lands Council would like to see the EPA do more dredging on some areas of the Coeur d'Alene River, downstream from the Bunker Hill site. Spring floods continually spread new contaminated silt over the floodplain, and sometimes into homes adjacent to the river, as happened in February 1996. Also, many tundra swans have died in marshy areas after eating grass growing in the poisoned soil.

"There is some dredging planned in that area, but it needs to be deeper and more extensive," Petersen said.

Officials on the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation also worry that the EPA plan ignores pollution in Lake Coeur d'Alene. A federal judge recently granted the tribe jurisdiction over the lower third of the lake. According to the EPA, the contamination is encapsulated on the lake bottom and the sediments don't impose a threat. The tribe disagrees.

"The lake is the most significant economic producer in northern Idaho and has to be taken care of," says tribal spokesman Bob Bostwick.

Some state officials say consensus is closer than it appears. Currently, negotiations between the EPA and the state are under way. Rob Hanson with Idaho's Department of Environmental Quality speculates that while the state will probably proceed with the majority of the EPA's 30-year plan, the proposal to extend cleanup beyond then will be tabled.

Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Montana.


  • Rob Hanson, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, 208/373-0290;
  • Lands Council, 509/838-4912.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Mark Matthews

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