OUT OF THE EARTH, INTO OUR LUNGS: A CENTURY OF MINING LEAVES POISON AND POVERTY IN THE IDAHO PANHANDLE
By PAUL KOBERSTEIN
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.