Revisiting Idaho’s lead-poisoning legacy

A new book documents a catastrophe in Silver Valley.


Spectators watch as three of four lead smelting smokestacks are demolished at the Bunker Hill Superfund Site near Kellogg, Idaho, in 1996.
Ron Swords/AP Photo

How is it possible that ordinary people can be willing, as a matter of corporate policy, to contaminate workers and poison children, kill rivers, destroy entire forests, and then walk away from the ruin and the shame? This is a question that goes to the heart of the past — and the future — of the American West.

A new book by Michael C. Mix tackles the issue head-on. Leaded: The Poisoning of Idaho’s Silver Valley meticulously reconstructs the story of how — and why — the Bunker Hill Mining Company released enormous quantities of lead over decades in northern Idaho, creating, with little moral or legal constraint, the nation’s worst-ever lead-poisoning epidemic and a dead zone that extended for miles.

Leaded is a profoundly important book about the place of radically extractive industries in the American West and the responsibility of government to protect human and ecological health. Published as it is at a hinge point in history, it is likely to become a crucial case study of environmental injustice — a classic of environmental and cultural history.

An expert in pollutant contamination of shellfish, Mix taught biology for decades at Oregon State University. No surprise, then, that he sorts evidence with the integrity and openness of a scientist and follows leads with the tenacity of a detective, narrating this complex story with the skill of an experienced teacher. Because he loves the ruined valley close to his childhood home, he could be forgiven some white-hot anger at its destruction. But Mix carefully avoids polemics, offering instead something much better — a true and well-told story.

And the story is chilling. In 1843, a pioneer botanist described the Silver Valley as “sublime … as complete a picture of pristine nature as can be held under a northern sky.” Forty years later, mines producing lead, zinc, silver, copper and gold had begun disgorging wastes into the rivers and spewing toxins into the air. By 1903, farmers were suing to stop industry from poisoning their horses, cattle, dogs and chickens. They lost, Mix writes, because of an “ancient legal premise dating back to Roman times: mining exploration and development took preference over all other uses of the land because they represent the ‘highest economic use.’ ” Over the years, the smelters’ smokestacks released tons of lead that were trapped in deadly inversions until the valley “look(ed) like a caricature of a graveyard … a poisoned, dead, or dying landscape,” and people began to fall sick.

After a 1974 fire destroyed the major pollution-control system of the Bunker Hill smelter, the company hired public-relations consultants and began to release its deadly smoke only at night. Children in a downwind elementary school showed high, sometimes catastrophic, levels of lead in their blood. In response, Bunker Hill accused their mothers of being slovenly housekeepers. And so the story goes — carefully told, fully documented, and devastating.

The lead-poisoning epidemic in children, the dead mountainsides and rivers weren’t the unforeseen result of unusual circumstances, or of the failure of moral judgment in some rogue CEO. Instead, Mix concludes, the Bunker Hill catastrophe should be seen as part of the legacy of Westward expansion, when the goal of government was to empower corporations to extract the riches of the West.

The strategies were unremarkable — and familiar. Create towns where every person depends on the industry for a job; make sure that the state depends on income from the industry, too. Over-work and under-protect workers; destroy unions. Sell out to a distant corporation, a cash-starved parent company that requires managers to bring in profits no matter what. Stonewall and/or lie to fledgling federal agencies that might restrict corporate freedom to pollute. Hire scientists to perform bogus studies “which invariably produced results favorable to the industry,” as Mix shows. Insist that pollution controls would bankrupt the company; at any interference, threaten to close up shop. Blame the workers and families for their health problems. Extract billions of dollars. Repeat endlessly.

But is it structurally inevitable that the Bunker Hill story will play itself out, again and again? The citizenry of the West has to decide that question, and soon. Leaded raises hard questions for our time: How much are we willing to pay, in the currency of our health and the health of our communities and ecosystems, for the products of violent and dirty extractive industries — once lead smelting, and now fracking, offshore oil drilling, coal and uranium mining? Is there a limit to the costs we can justly impose on others, present and future? As we struggle to find ways to use the land without wrecking it, this book will provide historical perspective, cogent thinking, a clear warning, and maybe even the courage to take a stand.

Leaded: The Poisoning of Idaho’s Silver Valley
Michael C. Mix
280 pages, paperback: $29.95.
Oregon State University Press, 2016.

Kathleen Dean Moore writes from a cabin on an Alaskan island during the summer. In the winters, she lives in Corvallis, Oregon, across the street from her former Oregon State University colleague, Michael Mix.

High Country News Classifieds