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Silver Valley residents sue for damages



Residents of Idaho's Silver Valley want five former mining companies to pay for a medical monitoring program that would detect health effects from lead and arsenic contamination for up to 100,000 people in the Coeur d'Alene Basin. Filed in January in state court, the residents' class action suit alleges that five mining companies in the basin "traded public health for profit by intentionally, knowingly and systematically exposing individuals to dangerous levels of lead, arsenic and other hazardous substances." The program, say residents, would help ensure early detection and prevention of problems associated with lead and arsenic poisoning, such as cognitive disorders.

"Our kids are suffering profound health damages that we believe are tied to lead poisoning," says Rita Bornitz, a basin resident whose three children have elevated lead levels. Rita and Arden Bornitz are part of a group of eight past and present residents who approached a Seattle law firm with the idea for the suit. "We believe there are hundreds of families that have no idea their kids are in danger of health risks," Rita Bornitz says.

With the Environmental Protection Agency planning a 30-year, $359 million cleanup of the basin (HCN, 3/4/02: EPA wants to supersize Idaho Superfund site), it is likely that the judge will certify the suit as a class action, says Tony Roisman, a lawyer familiar with medical monitoring.

While it's unclear how much the mining companies might pay if they lose the suit, it appears they will put up a fight.

"I don't think they have a valid claim for anything that happened in the past," says Mike Owens, a spokesman for Sunshine Mining Co., which filed for bankruptcy in 2000. Owens says that once bankruptcy has been filed, the company is immune from such a suit.

The judge is expected to review the case before the end of the year.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Matthew Preusch