Out of the Earth, Into Our Lungs
A century of mining leaves poison and poverty in the Idaho Pandhandle
by Paul Koberstein
KELLOGG, Idaho -
Where's Erin Brockovich when you need her?
On January 22, a $1 billion lawsuit against several Idaho mining companies goes to trial in Boise. The suit, filed by the Coeur d' Alene Tribal Council and the U.S. Justice Department, claims that the companies dumped hundreds of millions of tons of hazardous wastes in the Coeur d' Alene River basin in Idaho's Panhandle over the last century, and now should clean it up.
Court papers filed by government attorneys in December say toxic mining wastes - mainly lead, arsenic and cadmium - have left a "trail of contamination in the sediments, on the flood plains and in adjoining wetlands and lakes" in the basin. Defendants are Asarco, Hecla Mining Co. and Coeur d' Alene Mines.
Though witnesses will be called to testify that the contamination has also harmed human health, little if any settlement money will go for medical treatment some doctors say is desperately needed to help potentially thousands of people who likely have suffered permanent harm from lead poisoning. It seems that Ms. Brockovich, the legal assistant who blew the whistle on chromium poisoning in a small California town, could find plenty of material here for another class action suit.
New studies conducted by a variety of government agencies here show that historic lead poisoning in the basin could hardly have been more dangerous. One child in 1974 had the highest blood lead level ever recorded. Even levels much less extreme can cause serious brain damage, ranging from lowered IQs to learning difficulties to mental retardation, and even more moderate levels can disrupt motor skills or play a role in juvenile delinquency, medical experts say.
Nearly 11,000 people live along the river in Mullan, Wallace, Kellogg, Cataldo and other small towns, some 31 percent of whom live below the poverty line. With the decline of mining and smelting in the 1990s, the number of children in poverty in Shoshone County increased from 23 to 31 percent, while the percentage of children in poverty statewide remained relatively constant at about 16 percent. The unemployment rate for the county is nearly 11 percent.
"There is a serious problem here, and its been going on for generations and generations," says Barbara Miller, director of the Silver Valley People's Action Committee, a local citizens' group that organized 14 years ago to fight the pollution and improve medical care for victims.
Today, the local school district in Kellogg ranks first in Idaho in the prevalence of problems associated with lead poisoning, including attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, and first in the percentage of children enrolled in special education programs, according to Dr. John Rosen, a professor of pediatrics and head of environmental sciences at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York. Rosen has seen 400 patients in the basin in the last three years, working as a consultant for the People's Action Committee.
Health problems here, he says, only begin with lead poisoning. Shoshone County ranks first in Idaho for cancers associated with arsenic poisoning, including cancers of the bladder, kidney, colon and larynx. The county has a higher than statewide share of child poverty, single parent families, infant mortality, low birth weight babies, school dropouts, teen births, and teen violent deaths for all years included in a recent study.
"The valley desperately needs doctors, social workers, pediatricians and adult internists trained to deal with environmental medicine," Rosen says. "These areas are beyond the capability of their local medical community. I've seen better medical care in third world countries."
Ground zero is the vast Bunker Hill Superfund Site, a 21-square mile rectangular zone that straddles Interstate 90 in and around Kellogg, about midway between the Washington and Montana borders. On a recent visit to Kellogg, as an acidic odor filled the air, possibly emanating from an industrial source in the valley, work continued on a cleanup that thus far has cost the government some $125 million. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added the site to its Superfund program in 1983.
As the lawsuit goes to trial, the EPA is poised to expand the Superfund site to encompass the entire 1,500-square-mile Coeur d' Alene River basin - it would be by far the largest Superfund site in the U.S. - despite vociferous opposition from Idaho business interests who blast the EPA and the "stigma" often associated with its other Superfund sites.
"This is a region that is frighteningly anti-government," says Bob Bostwick, a spokesman for the Coeur d' Alene Tribal Council. "They seem to be mad at everyone except the mining industry that dumped this stuff on top of them."
The companies and state have formed a united front against increasing the EPA's control over the cleanup. For one thing, they contend $250 million will be enough to cover cleanup costs, a far cry from the $1 billion sought in the federal lawsuit. Idaho seems willing to do whatever the industry asks. After all, the state settled its claims against the mining companies in 1986 for $4.5 million, after the Republican-dominated Legislature cut funding needed to support the litigation.
"Under current pollution laws, the polluter pays," says Dr. John Osborn, a Spokane physician and environmental activist. "And with an estimated cleanup ranging from $500 million to $3 billion, the polluting mining companies are driven to do all they can to sabotage a cleanup effort."
In Kellogg, a company town, people don't rock the boat. "Denial runs deep here, walking arm-in-arm with anger," Osborn says. "It's very difficult to have civil discourse about the pollution."
Community leaders in the basin prefer to discuss economic development projects, like the ski resort and gondola in Kellogg, and they blanch at the national publicity the poisoning has wrought. Improving health care here doesn't seem to be on the agenda. "I'm not optimistic at all that anything is going to change until there is an appropriate state-of-the art clinic," Dr. Rosen says. "These people need top notch medical care. Until that happens, I would say it is hopeless."
Paging Erin Brockovich.
The river that flows through it
The upper Coeur d' Alene basin is known as the Silver Valley, after a rich lode of minerals discovered in the late 19th Century and still mined today. From 1884 through 1999, miners extracted $5.7 billion worth of metals from the valley, including 1 billion ounces of silver, from nearly 100 underground mines, according to a recent self-published history by Ray Chapman, a former public relations executive for one of the mining companies.
The Coeur d' Alene River starts near the Montana border, and flows westward down a steep canyon until it reaches a broad floodplain. There it connects with a system of lateral lakes and wetlands. At one time, the valley provided excellent habitat for hundreds of species of birds and animals, but no more. "Every species of animal studied in the lower basin has exhibited signs of exposure to excessive amounts of heavy metals," the court papers say. For decades, tundra swans, Canada geese and wood ducks have been dying from lead poisoning. Lead levels in almost all the wetlands are high enough to continue to kill birds. Deer, muskrat, beaver and raccoons have also been poisoned.
New studies show the waste has spread downstream far beyond Kellogg, to an extent surprising even EPA officials. More than 500,000 pounds of lead flowed into Lake Coeur d' Alene last year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and some 72 million tons of toxic mining waste now rest on the lake' s bottom. Contamination in valley sediments goes down 50 feet in places. During a major flood in 1996, more than 1 million pounds of lead rushed into the lake in one day.
"There's a massive amount of toxic mine waste that has settled into the wetlands just above the lake," says Osborn, a founder of The Lands Council, a Spokane-based group. "So every time we get floods, we wash huge amounts of lead into the lake. The lake is a sunken river bottom, an inefficient trap for the pollution, and so a significant fraction washes through the lake, into the Spokane river and into Washington state."
The Spokane River, which drains Lake Coeur d' Alene from its northwest corner, is now badly polluted from the waste. The state of Washington posted health advisories last summer on beaches along the Spokane River after lead was found at elevated levels in all fish sampled in the river, including rainbow trout, mountain whitefish and large-scale suckers.
Health officials say everyone, and especially small children and pregnant women, should be careful to limit fish consumption from the Spokane River. Children should not eat any whole fish. Moreover, there are new concerns that the contamination is threatening Spokane's groundwater, says Judith Gilmore, executive director of The Lands Council. The EPA says the contamination is the unmistakable product of a century of mining in upper Coeur d' Alene basin, but some Idaho officials and the mining industry claim there is no health threat.
Extreme lead poisoning
Health warnings are old hat in Kellogg and 10 other Idaho towns along I-90, where an epidemic of lead poisoning raged largely unchecked for decades. Throughout its history in the Silver Valley, the mining industry worked hard at downplaying health problems while overplaying public relations in the basin, according to Katherine Aiken, a history professor at the University of Idaho where historic Bunker Hill documents have been archived.
"Privately, in their internal correspondence as early as 1918, company officials acknowledged that the smelter posed a health risk to the workers - their physicians told them that controlling the dust and fumes in the plant would be much more effective in preventing health risk than simply warning workers to keep themselves clean," Aiken wrote in a 1998 paper.
From the very first year of its operation, residents of Kellogg complained about the dust from the smelter, Aiken says. Years later, citizens in the region and the state knew about lead pollution in Lake Coeur d' Alene, while workers complained of "absolutely unbearable" and "very dangerous" conditions. Finally, in 1961 an anonymous group of them wrote a public letter to Idaho Governor Robert E. Smylie, claiming that the health of the community was imperiled and demanded an investigation.
Aiken said one mining company, Bunker Hill, "treated these concerns as a public relations problem and downplayed concerns about serious health or environmental risks. They launched an advertising campaign to 'project an image of environmental awareness.' Privately, they acknowledged that it would be more and more difficult to control the emissions because the plants were growing older and the company was continually trying to increase production despite the aging equipment."
In September 1973, as the price of lead was rising dramatically, a fire burned through woolen bags at the Bunker Hill smelter that had served as a low-tech scheme to restrain lead emissions. The company decided to continue operating during repairs that took six months to complete. During that time, lead from the smelter rained down on local communities. The public later learned from the company's internal documents that the company had calculated that it would be cheaper to run the plant and risk lawsuits and human tragedy than to shut down a short time for repairs. A two-page memo estimated it would cost the company some $6 to $7 million for poisoning 500 children. It also examined the possibility of discrediting doctors who warned of the dangers of lead poisoning. That year the company earned $25.9 million from lead ore.
In January 1975, of 172 children living closest to the smelter, all but two had dangerously high lead levels, including 45 with extreme poisoning. One child had the highest blood lead level ever reported. Hundreds of other children in nearby communities were also poisoned. A lawsuit recovered millions of dollars for several families, but few or no other children or adults in the valley have been compensated for their lead-related illnesses.
In 1983, the EPA stepped in, designating the area around the smelter as a Superfund site. But soon, it became clear the EPA was not solely interested in protecting the public. In 1990, an EPA inspector general's report found that Robie Russell, the EPA's northwest regional director under Reagan and Bush, had obstructed the cleanup. The inspector general said Idaho businessmen Duane Hagadone, Jack Simplot and others had profited from Russell's actions and from their own repeated obstruction of government inspections. Rather than allow the assets to be used to protect the children in the Silver Valley, the report said the businessmen had transferred the assets to "newly formed corporations through various stock options and property transfers."
The EPA-led cleanup, finally begun in 1990, has removed lead from soil in many residential areas, schools and parks, as well as from inside some homes and schools. The EPA says new cases of lead poisoning are less common than in the past, and it has declared the cleanup thus far a success, though much work remains to be done.
In many residential yards around Kellogg, crews have removed the upper 12 inches of soil, replacing it with a barrier, clean topsoil and sod. As of May 2000, more than 1,600 residential yards had been cleaned, about 75 percent of the total. House interiors, however, have not yet been cleaned.
Nevertheless, yard cleaning has reduced lead dust tracked indoors by kids, adults and pets, such that household lead levels have dropped from more than 10,000 parts per million a decade ago to a range between 500 and 1000 - levels the EPA says are nearly acceptable.
These numbers correlate with declining blood lead levels in children, but also with the end of smelting operations. The decline in the overall number and severity of cases has been dramatic in and around Kellogg, while in other parts of the valley blood poisoning remains more serious. These facts suggest the EPA cleanup has helped improve conditions.
"Things in the Kellogg region are a lot better," says Jerry Cobb, who runs a lead poisoning prevention program at the Panhandle Health Center in Kellogg. "If you compare our numbers to some of the other inner cities, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, you'll find we're considerably lower than what you'd find there."
There are, however, indications that conditions may be worse than the numbers suggest. Only one-fourth of the children from low-income families have been tested. The state has not required mandatory blood testing, though authorities have begun paying families up to $40 for each child tested.
suffer the most
The youngest children are being poisoned far worse than older children. In 1999, 14 percent of all one-year-olds and 15 percent of two-year-olds suffered from blood lead poisoning. These children are the most vulnerable to lead's harmful effects. Young children absorb and retain a larger percentage of ingested lead per unit of body weight than adults, which increases the toxic effects of the lead. The brains and nervous systems of young children are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. And frequent hand-to-mouth activity brings a child into greater contact with lead in the environment, especially in lead dust and soil.
Poisoning from unclean schools has also become an issue. Until this year, nearly a dozen schools in the valley had never been tested or thoroughly cleaned of lead. In March a judge ordered county-wide school testing. And in June, a lawyer in Boise spent $6,000 of his own money to pay for further schoolyard testing. The results did not indicate problems nearly as serious as those at homes. Nevertheless, schoolyard cleanups were ordered this year for schools in Mullan, Osburn and Wallace.
And while new cases of blood poisoning are rare, there seem to be few long-time residents who have not suffered blood poisoning in the past. Of the 400 Silver Valley patients Rosen has seen since 1997, he says 90 percent of all adult men and women had symptoms of lead poisoning. Among these patients, he found loss of memory and the ability to perform important mental skills, such as planning, abstract thinking, academic achievement and problem solving. He also found loss of motor skills, coordination, and postural stability.
Though lead stays in the blood just 30 to 45 days, it takes 25 years for the body to discard half the amount of lead it stores in bones. As a result, lead's effects span from early childhood to adulthood. For example, lead stored in bones re-enters the blood stream in pregnant and nursing mothers, placing the very young or unborn at great risk. Lead poisoning in the womb is known to cause a low-birth weight in babies, a factor in infant mortality.
"Effects in early childhood impact upon normal growth, development, societal skills, emotional status and virtually most, if not all, aspects of normal behavior and productivity in later years," Rosen said in a recent report on Silver Valley health effects. Evidence that lead can irreversibly impact IQ and behavior, he stated, is "conclusive and overwhelming."
Even the relatively mild lead poisoning levels now seen in the Silver Valley, he said, can cause memory loss, anxiety, depression, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorders and confusion. Such levels can also disrupt a person's motor abilities, thinking, reaction time and vocabulary.
Dr. Rosen says the community is also exposed to arsenic, a proven potent carcinogen in humans. Primarily a cause of lung cancer, arsenic can also cause cancer in other internal organs, including the bladder, liver, prostrate, kidney, stomach, colon and oral-nasal cavity. "The sparsely populated Shoshone County ranks number one in the whole state of Idaho in the prevalence of cancers," Rosen says.
"EPA Accountability Now"
Founded in 1986, the Silver Valley People's Action Committee has been out in front as an advocate for cleanup, blood lead testing and health care. Miller, the group's founder, said they have continually lobbied the EPA for a more thorough cleanup, while pressing government officials to provide health intervention.
However, some local residents believe lead poisoning is not a major problem in the Silver Valley. The mining industry, the local chamber of commerce and even some physicians assert that the EPA has greatly overstated the problem. One of the EPA's harshest critics is Dr. Jack Riggs, a Coeur d' Alene physician and a Republican member of the Idaho legislature.
"There are 20 things I'm much more concerned about than blood lead levels, even in kids around here," Riggs said at a hearing last April in Wallace, where blood lead levels are now higher than in Kellogg. "I'm not saying we should do nothing for those children with elevated blood lead levels. We should, but we now have a small problem that needs to be addressed in a reasonable fashion."
U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, R-Idaho, claims the problem is not lead poisoning so much as the federal agency that wants to get rid of it: the EPA. "EPA has failed to establish - other than circumstantially - a direct connection between soil lead levels and children's blood lead levels in the Basin, but continues to declare lead cleanup a priority and requests funds to expand the project," Chenoweth-Hage said in a recent 60-page critique of the cleanup. A few weeks later, the EPA responded with a five-page statement, calling Chenoweth-Hage's report "either factually in error or a mischaracterization of our work in the Silver Valley."
And in Coeur d' Alene, the chamber of commerce is worried that the EPA has unfairly disparaged their lovely Lake Coeur d' Alene.
"In response to the EPA's intention of declaring Lake Coeur d' Alene and our entire region a Superfund site, it does not sit well, knowing that National Geographic Magazine has named our lake as one of the five most beautiful lakes in the world," said Bret Bower of the group Community Leaders for EPA Accountability Now, a group supported by the local chamber of commerce and realtors, among others. He made his remarks at a House subcommittee hearing in October convened by Chenoweth-Hage.
"We are concerned because the threat of basin-wide Superfund could have devastating economic ripples throughout the inland Northwest," Bower said.
At the same hearing, Lauri Skaer of the Northwest Mining Association blamed the federal government for the lead pollution. She said the government ordered the local mines to work around the clock during World War II.
"In reviewing the historical record, one thing is abundantly clear," she said. "The United States government was a partner in Silver Valley mining operations throughout the first half of this century."
Maybe so, but attorneys for the Justice Department say that's no excuse. In court papers, they contend the mining companies would be off the hook only if the war effort was the sole cause of the pollution. And that, the papers said, is not the case.
Given its history, some say it's hard to believe the state can be trusted to complete the cleanup. Chuck Clarke, then head of the EPA's Northwest regional office, told the Spokane Spokesman-Review last May, "Let's be real here. The contamination has gone on for 50 or 100 years and we haven't seen a lot of cleanup go on without us."
But Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne sees it differently. Last July, he announced a deal with the mining companies who pledged to spend $250 million over 30 years on a cleanup. "This is a viable, aggressive offer from the state and mining companies," Kempthorne said. "If the federal government and tribe accept, we can clean up the Coeur d' Alene River and surrounding basin instead of litigating this for years."
But in Olympia, Gov. Gary Locke doubts Idaho can cleanup a mess that extends deep into Washington state. "The evidence continues to mount that the long-time mining practices in Idaho are creating health and environmental threats downstream in our state," Locke says. "And it further illustrates the need for a full and thorough Superfund cleanup in the Spokane River basin. Our citizens should be able to fish and swim in the Spokane River without worrying about contaminated sediments and fish."
As the trial date draws near, settlement talks continue among the parties. There's still a chance for a quick end to the litigation.
The Tribal Council's Bob Bostwick says everyone understand that the Coeur d' Alene basin will never again be as pristine as it once was. "This is a terrible and often deadly problem that s being dealt with here," he says. "Our enemy is not the mining industry, its not the government. Our enemy is the pollution. How we are going to resolve that is the issue."
Coeur d' Alene Basin Web Site: http://www.epa.gov/region10/ (Click on "Idaho" and then Bunker Hill - Coeur d' Alene Basin Superfund website)
Marianne Deppman (206)553-1237
Silver Valley People's Action Committee
P.O. Box 362, Kellogg, ID 83837
The Lands Council
517 S. Division St.
Spokane WA 99202
Northwest Mining Association
10 N. Post Street
Spokane, WA 99201-0772
Hecla Mining Company
6500 Mineral Drive - Coeur d' Alene, Idaho 83815-8788
Coeur d' Alene Visitor & Convention Services
P.O. Box 850
Coeur d' Alene, ID 83816-0850
Coeur d' Alene Tribal Council
"A deep and wide mining scar in Idaho," by Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times, July 17, 2000
"Report details basinwide damage," by Zaz Hollander, Spokane Spokesman- Review, October 21, 2000
History of Idaho's Silver Valley, 1878-2000, Ray Chapman, Chapman Publishing, Kellogg