Andy Helkey presented an update on the Bunker Hill Superfund Site to an attentive audience at the KEA office. Several audience members had grown up in Kellogg and shared their memories of the years the mine and smelter operated in Kellogg.
This is the second largest Superfund site in the U.S. consisting of 1500 square miles of land. (Butte, Montana claims the number one position). It is also one of the most complex because the entire site has the highest population of residents living within its boundaries. Most Superfund sites are industrial areas that have no one residing in them.
Mining of lead, zinc, and silver beginning in the 1880s led to the current environmental challenges. Bunker Hill mine, still the largest underground mine in the world, provided jobs but also destroyed the land, water and threatened human health. Of course, in those years no regulations existed. However, when new regulations began to be instituted in the 1960s, Bunker Hill never met them.
The other source of the pollution was the smelter located in Kellogg. The town was chosen due to its support for mining and the low population that would be living in its midst. It contributed years of smog which Helkey showed in a historic photo from the period. Women in the audience recalled that pollution when they were children and how you could taste it as well as see it and breathe it.
People did notice the effects, but it was farmers downstream who brought the first lawsuit in 1907. Every spring the floods brought more tailings waste onto their agricultural lands, which affected crops and animals. Bunker Hill Mine responded by building plank dams that caught flood water and held it while the toxic sediments settled. But floods often wiped the dams out and released more toxic waters. Today there are 17,000-19,000 acres in the watershed that are still toxic.
In the 1970s the baghouse for the smelter burned and instead of repairing this important pollution control device, the company continued production without it leading to uncontrolled emissions, a deliberate decision. An elementary school was right next door. During the one year of uncontrolled operations 160 tons per month of emissions containing 50-70% lead escaped. By 1974 children were showing lead poisoning symptoms. Ninety-nine of all kids tested had unhealthy lead levels. Unfortunately these problems were denied by some in the community and today some still believe lead can’t hurt people.
Nevertheless, such health hazards initiated the process that became the current Superfund site and related projects to clean the region. First, public properties like schools were cleaned beginning in 1986. Then residential cleaning began in 1989, which required consent by the owners. Due to people refusing clean-up, eight properties have not been dealt with by the cleanup process.
The process involved removal of contaminated soil from 6-12 inches, placing of a fabric to warn that below it the soil remained still toxic. Lastly, new top soil, most from the Rathdrum prairie, was laid down. The land is then considered safe for residents. But if they wish to do construction or landscape projects, a permit is needed from the Institutional Controls Program of the Panhandle Health District. The ICP then helps with proper removal, new soil, and other safety procedures. The on-going sewer renovation in Kellogg is carefully following strict regulations as they dig in the toxic soils.
Children’s lead levels are much improved. Last year 184 children were tested and only 14 had elevated readings. Most of those levels were due to lead paint issues in the home while sanding and painting, and swimming in the South Fork of the CDA River which has not been cleaned. A major problem today is getting people to understand that although things looks beautiful, toxic areas still exist. The ICP posts warning signs, but they are torn down as soon as they go up. The ICP does K-3 education through the schools about the lead, how to deal with it safely and stay healthy. Since the lead contamination must be cleaned and contained in perpetuity, this is an endless, but essential process.