| Heavy Metal
A Video by Hans Rosenwinkel
A picturesque valley nestled comfortably in the center of the Idaho Panhandle region has set the stage for a slugfest of epic proportions. The Silver Valley is an area steeped in a rich history of mining that digs back into the late eighteen hundreds. Over time, mining helped crown the Idaho economy, but it has since dwindled to a struggling industry…one that left behind a mountain of controversy.
Until the early 1980s, the looming smokestacks of the Bunker Hill smelter spewed a toxic-lead cloud that lingered over the valley floor. However, today, this seemingly pristine land of majestic forests and grand waterways is once again enshrouded in an ominous dark cloud…a cloud that leaves area residents at major odds with each other and a future of uncertainty. Heavy Metal, an alarming documentary, exposes the truth and untold stories of the hardships brought on by a once flourishing natural resource tradition.
Many prominent Inland Northwest families owe their fortunes to the mineral rich hills of north Idaho. Unfortunately, many other families owe uncountable cases of severe illness to the mining of those same hills. Children in the 1980s had the highest levels of lead ever recorded in humans. In 1982, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) declared the twenty-one square miles around the old Bunker Hill lead smelter the nation’s 2nd largest Superfund site. Since then, the EPA has spent over $200 million digging up contaminated lawns, demolishing the smelter site, and cleaning up parks, roadsides, and schools.
Now, with the cleanup virtually over, the true extent of mining’s legacy in north Idaho is finally being revealed. Sediments contaminated with lead, calcium, zinc, and arsenic have spread far outside the original Superfund site. This area is so large that it dwarfs most cleanups attempted by the EPA. Thus, encompassing a range of up to 1,500 square miles of the Coeur d’Alene River basin, stretching from the Montana border all the way to the Columbia River in eastern Washington.
Miles away from the site, children are being tested with disturbing results. Beaches as far away as the Spokane River in Washington are so contaminated with metals originating high in the Idaho hills, that warning signs have been posted against playing in the sand. The EPA is now considering the entire Coeur d’Alene River basin a potential Superfund site. Statistics estimate that it will take 20 to 30 years to reverse the damage across the entire basin, at a cost of $1 billion to $3 billion.
The slopes of the Silver Valley have been probed for ore since the 1880s. Metals worth more than $5 billion have also been unearthed there. Through the 1960s, various mining firms dumped toxic waste directly into the nearby river that parallels the towns of Wallace and Kellogg. During this time, the Bunker Hill smelter oozed astronomical amounts of lead out of its smokestacks; which scarred surrounding mountain-sides and deposited lead dust on yards, homes, roads, roofs, and trees for miles upon miles. In 1973, a fire took out part of the Bunker Hill facility, which destroyed many of the filters that took lead out of the exhaust. Even so, Gulf Resources and Chemical Co. (the long-time ruling mining corporate giant) decided to keep running without any pollution controls.
A few years later, the extent of the pollution became public knowledge. Gulf Resources transferred most of its assets overseas and declared bankruptcy, leaving behind a $100 million cleanup bill and stranded around 2,000 faithful employees who were owed their pensions.
Currently, the EPA is studying the entire Coeur d’Alene River basin. They say, “it’s time to step outside the box.” This is welcome news to Washington state agencies and local environmental groups. Reactions from politicians have been swift and defensive from both sides of the border. According to Coeur d’Alene Mayor, Steve Judy, “We do not need the stigma of a Superfund site.”
Today, thousands of old tunnels and piles of tailings continue to leak lead, arsenic, zinc, cadium, mercury, copper, and other heavy metals into creeks and rivers with each rain. On a single day in 1996, the U.S. Geological Survey engineers estimated that 1 million pounds of lead washed into Lake Coeur d’ Alene during a flood. This added to the millions of tons of heavy metals that already lie on the lake’s bottom in a foot or more of poisonous sediment. These events are having a severe impact on human health and area habitats; including the destruction of fisheries, wildlife, and vegetation.
While some local representatives look forward to a bright and prosperous economy, others are not so convinced. This heavy tension includes a list of players who express their concerns on environmental, health, and habitat effects. This also contrasts many others who express denial, blame, and even, signs of hate.
People from all sides of the spectrum will tell their side of the story and reveal past, present, and future perspectives on the matter. This includes:
Federal Government/EPA employees: who manage the existing Superfund site
Conservation group spokespersons: The Inland Council for Public Lands, The Silver Valley People’s Action Coalition, the Sierra Club, the Rocky Mountain Alliance, and the Idaho Conservancy.
Scientists from private, state, and federal agencies: including the University of Idaho, Washington State University, and the Department of Fish & Wildlife.
Members from the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council: who shed light on how years of contamination levels have impacted their indigenous way of life.
Washington and Idaho politicians: who support each states economic and environmental mindsets.
Supporters of the mining industry: area residents who are against the EPA point-of-view.
Members of the Silver Valley Community: who express conflicting opinions and tell why.
Area Health Officials: who support or dismiss the adverse health effects imposed by the mining industry.
With a backdrop launched by the “boom days” of mining’s yesteryear, the story line will shift to an alternative look at the mining legacy and the surrounding controversies of today. This documentary saga will unveil a combination of historical photos, poetic narration, aerial footage, stylistic editing, and avant-garde videography to showcase a timeline of differing mindsets and landscapes. The integration of scientific experiments and the unique musical sounds of the Northwest, will also blend together to help provide the viewer an eye-opening, informative, and unforgettable experience.
This chilling drama is an understated regional issue that bears national importance. Heavy Metal will share all sides of the issue, without prejudice; with hopes of bringing an awareness to these events before they pass into the annals of history.