Silver Valley Action
Legacy of Pollution

Beach Closes for Soil Cleanup
from the Spokesman Review April-May 2008

A beach along the Spokane River will be closed in late summer and fall while soil containing lead, arsenic and other metals are removed.
The site, on the north shore of the river, immediately west of the Harvard Road Bridge, is one of the nine shoreline areas in Washington targeted for cleanup, based on studies of mining waste in the Coeur d'Alene Basin.
Over a period of decades, heavy metals washed down from the Coeur d'Alene Mining District, settling in the upper stretches of the Spokane River.  They're (toxic heavy metals) hazardous to people and wildlife.
The Department of Ecology plans to replace the metals-laced soil with clean soil at the beach near Harvard Road Bridge.  In some areas the contamination will be left in place and capped with clean sand and gravel.  A boat launch is also planned.
For more information call 509-329-3415 or go to  

This interesting web site shows that the cancer risk for Shoshone County, Idaho is in the 90 per cent and above range - So much for the effectiveness of the clean-up...
Environmental Defense Scorecard for Lead Hazards - Shoshone County

Silver, Lead, Zinc Mines Leave Leagacy of Pollution

Tina Paddock's sons help remodel their house, not knowing about the toxic heavy metal contamination. Realtors violated due disclosure laws and did not tell the family about the pollution when the house was purchased.
Heavy metals, including high concentrations of lead, pose an ongoing health threat-especially to children and women of child- bearing age-in the Spokane River-Lake Coeur d'Alene watershed of northern Idaho and eastern Washington. Yet the proposed cleanup plan fails to deal with a major source of lead poisoning and ignores 70 million tons of accumulated toxic sediments at the bottom of Lake Coeur d'Alene.

The nation's worst epidemic of industrial lead pollution occurred in 1973 at what is now the Bunker Hill Superfund site in Smelterville, Idaho, when a fire at the Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Complex disabled a lead smelter's pollution controls. When the fire broke out, however, the directors of Texas-based Gulf Resources, who owned the complex, allowed it to continue operating, spewing lead into the community.(1)

Shameful as this episode was, it represents only a fraction of a century's worth of toxic pollution from mining in northern Idaho that has spread far to the west beyond Spokane, Washington, contaminating lakes and rivers in the 1,500-square-mile Coeur d'Alene River basin. Cleaning up the damage done by mining in northern Idaho will be among the most difficult and challenging pollution cleanup efforts in U.S. history, and the task is expected to take 20 to 30 years.(2) Full recovery of the Coeur d'Alene River watershed from environmental degradation may take centuries.

Mines in the upper Coeur d'Alene basin have yielded 1.2 billion ounces of silver, 8 million tons of lead and 3.2 million tons of zinc, worth about $4.5 billion in aggregate. Historically, mining companies didn't concern themselves with safe disposal of their waste; they dumped it wherever it was convenient. An estimated 62 million tons of mine wastes, or "tailings," were dumped directly into streams between 1884 and 1968, when the practice was halted. These tailings contained an estimated 880,000 tons of lead and more than 720,000 tons of zinc.(3)

Lake Coeur d'Alene, widely considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, has 70 million tons of accumulated toxic sediments on its lake bottom.(4) Another 100 million tons are perched upstream of the lake.(5) During a 1996 flood more than a million pounds of lead flowed into Lake Coeur d'Alene in a single day.(6)

But the pollution doesn't stop at the Idaho line. Heavy logging in the upper watershed exacerbates flooding, which washes the lead, arsenic, and other toxic metals downstream.(7) Especially during floods, the mining wastes pollute the Spokane River, which flows west out of Lake Coeur d'Alene into neighboring Washington. Zinc kills aquatic life, lead washes up on the beaches, and heavy metals accumulate behind Upriver Dam, leading to the Spokane River's dubious distinction as Washington's most polluted river.(8)

Heavy metals cause harm to humans and wildlife alike. Lead is of special concern because it is a neurotoxin, damaging the development of the human brain. Deposited in bones, it can leach out slowly over the course of a lifetime. Toddlers' proclivity to put things in their mouths puts them at special risk, but older children are vulnerable as well because of the extensive exposures to lead that occur in homes, schools, and outdoor play areas.(9)

Marlene Yoss, the mother of three lead-poisoned children, was told by doctors that she had three "walking dead babies." In 1973, Yoss and her family were living in Deadwood Gulch, Idaho, not far from the Bunker Hill complex that caught fire, disabling the lead smelter's pollution controls. Blood levels checked in August 1974 found two of Yoss' children, Edie and Ray, with levels of 122 ug/dl (micrograms per deciliter) and 111 ug/dl, respectively.(10) A reading of 10 ug/dl is considered the threshold of concern, although there is no "safe" level of lead.(11)

Lead can poison wildlife, such as the tundra swans that have migrated into the Coeur d'Alene River valley for time immemorial. High lead concentrations paralyze the swans' ability to swallow, causing them to starve to death in the midst of plenty. Biologists refer to the thousands of acres of polluted wetlands in the Coeur d'Alene River valley as "the killing fields."(12)

The first Superfund designation in the region came in 1983 with the designation of the Bunker Hill Superfund Site (BHSS), focusing on the lead smelter. Although Bunker Hill is the nation's second largest Superfund site at 21 square miles, the BHSS (a 3- by 7-mile area called "the box") represents only a fraction of the polluted watershed.

Extensive work has been done to clean up "the box." Expanding the cleanup to the larger watershed refocuses attention on the BHSS, for good and ill. Concerns remain that the cleanup is inadequate and below national standards used at other lead-contaminated sites. Interior dusts-the way humans most commonly contract lead poisoning-have not been remedied. In the impoverished communities that are worst afflicted by the pollution, little has been done to help people with high concentrations of lead in their bodies.(13) And every day, on average, 1,500 pounds of zinc continues to wash downstream as far as Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, harming and killing aquatic life in the rivers and lakes.(14)

Expanding the cleanup to the entire 1,500 square mile Coeur d'Alene River basin will require commitment to a cleanup plan with integrity, funding, and monitoring to assure accountability. The plan currently proposed for the Spokane River-Lake Coeur d'Alene watershed has major technical deficiencies that threaten to leave children and the entire water system at risk. It fails to deal with the major source of lead poisoning, proposes no remedy to reducing flooding, and offers no cleanup plan for the 70 million tons of toxic sediments at the bottom of Lake Coeur d'Alene.

The cleanup plan requires money. The EPA estimates that $359 million will be required to implement an interim cleanup plan. Hidden corporate assets, bankruptcies, and the passage of time in this 118-year-old saga make it unlikely that the polluters will pay. The Superfund Trust Fund and the polluter-pays tax are the only viable options for fully funding a cleanup of this scope.(15)

The stakes are high. Human health, especially for children and women of child-bearing age, is paramount in any cleanup. For the now-impoverished and polluted communities that once produced some of the great mineral wealth of the nation, the Superfund cleanup-if funded and done correctly-holds the key to protecting human health, restoring the environment and providing family-wage jobs.

On August 13, 2002, EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman drank untreated lake water from polluted Lake Coeur d'Alene, joining with elected officials in a toast to celebrate the lake and a Superfund cleanup. But she offered no thoughts on where the money for the cleanup would come from.(16)

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