It's a fact of history that Congress once voted to sever Northern Idaho from the rest of the state and attach it to Washington, but President Grover Cleveland thought it was a bad idea and pocket­ vetoed the law in 1887. The northern part of the state became the Idaho Panhandle, though it looks more like a thumb.

Make that a sore thumb. Before Cleveland took office in 1885, the waters of the Coeur d'Alene-Spokane River basin were already being poisoned by hard rock mining in the upper reaches of the basin, an area known as  the Silver Valley. Though mining companies quit dumping toxic tailings into the river in 1968, their waste continues to poison the river to this day. The mines' legacy has also poisoned children and adults, contaminated residential properties and open spaces, killed wildlife and defiled waters all the way to the Columbia River.

In the 1970s, a smelter fire in Kellogg caused the highest measured levels of blood lead poisoning in U.S. history. Some of the highest toxic concentrations have been found along a former Union Pacific rail line now being converted into a controversial hiking and biking trail (see story Page 16.) Hundreds of millions of tons of mining waste have been moved by flooding in the basin. Enormous quantities have landed at the bottom of Lake Coeur d'Alene or continued their journey through the lake and into the Spokane River at the lake's other end.

The Spokane River enters the Columbia above Grand Coulee Dam. In 1999, the Spokane discharged 400 tons of lead, cadmium and zinc into the Columbia, plus additional, unmeasured amounts of arsenic, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.


Paul Koberstein