EPA, DEQ, Panhandle Health celebrate 50 years of protecting children from lead poisoning

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Basin Environmental Improvement Project Commission are celebrating decades of work to protect Silver Valley children from lead poisoning after the infamous 1973 Bunker Hill smelter baghouse fire, the worst lead poisoning event in U.S. history. The work has made the Silver Valley a much healthier place to live, work, and play.

For the last 50 years EPA and its partners – Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Panhandle Health District, and the Basin Commission — have cleaned up countless abandoned mines, treated and re-forested hundreds of acres of metals-laden hillsides, and removed millions of tons of contaminated soil from over 7,000 residential and school yards, play areas, roads, streambeds, and mine sites.

Over the last 50 years, average blood lead levels in children tested by Panhandle Health District have declined from about 67 to 2 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), well below the Centers for Disease Control’s reference value of 3.5 (µg/dL). The work at the Bunker Hill Superfund Site is nowhere near complete but vast improvements have been made and should be celebrated.

Background: Fire at the Bunker Hill Baghouse

By September 3, 1973, when a fire disabled much of the main pollution control device on the Bunker Hill Mine’s lead smelter in Smelterville, Idaho, the “Silver Valley” had been grappling for almost 100 years with significant environmental and public health problems caused by the mining and processing of the region’s abundant metals.

Some companies attempted to protect workers from debilitating illnesses that were cutting short their careers and their lives. In fact, in its 2005 report on cleanup of the Bunker Hill Superfund Site, the National Academies of Science noted that “By 1920, Bunker Hill management realized that their smelter could be causing some health risks for its employees and initiated an unproven electrolytic treatment for removing the lead from their bodies.”

And for decades, Bunker Hill Mining Corporation — the largest lead and zinc mine in the U.S. — and other mining companies in the Silver Valley had been compensating downstream farmers for damage to crops and livestock. The mining companies also purchased “pollution easements” allowing them to discharge mine tailings directly into the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River and several of its tributaries.

After the baghouse fire was extinguished, the mine’s owner, Gulf Resources, determined that the financial benefits of continuing to operate the crippled smelter were greater than the legal risks of spewing huge amounts of lead and other pollutants into the community. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry, a division within CDC, the smelter poured an average of 73 tons of lead each month into Smelterville and surrounding Kellogg neighborhoods from September 1973 until August 1974 when it was shut down.

Unsurprisingly, a 1976 study conducted by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare in the months following the fire found that 99 percent of Smelterville children had blood lead levels at or above the CDC’s level of concern at the time. These were among the highest blood levels ever recorded.

Armed at the time with limited authorities, health and environmental agencies scrambled to stop dangerous waste and pollution management practices and simultaneously reduce kids’ exposures to lead soil and dust. The work had near immediate impacts: By 1981 only 19 percent of Smelterville children tested had blood lead levels that exceeded that era’s national average.

Despite effective work combatting the acute crisis in Smelterville and Kellogg, annual flooding events, development, ongoing mine and smelting operations, and even mine closures continued to inject more pollution into communities throughout the Silver Valley, repeatedly exposing children to dangerous levels of lead.

Of particular concern was the impact of acidic smelter emissions on the inability of the surrounding hillsides to grow vegetation after they’d been heavily logged to build the mines, towns, and railroads. The denuded unfertile hillsides had become little more than enormous deposits of metals-laden soil with nothing to keep it in place during the yearly spring floods that regularly inundated and contaminated downstream communities like Wallace and Kellogg.

In 1983, EPA listed the Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Complex as a Superfund site. Expanded in 2002, the BHSS includes environmental cleanup and restoration work in areas contaminated by mining waste in the Coeur d’Alene River Watershed totaling about 1,500 square miles. It is one of the largest Superfund sites in the nation.

Armed with a spate of new environmental statutes, state and federal agencies took on the problem, removing wastes from countless abandoned mines, treating and re-foresting the denuded hillsides, and placing millions of tons of contaminated soil into repositories where it is securely stored and monitored. Previously acidic streams once devoid of life now host abundant fish populations and nurse the trees and shrubs that stabilize their banks and reduce dangerous flooding.

Panhandle Health District’s Kellogg office has conducted free annual blood lead testing to help identify children with elevated blood lead levels and determine how they’re being exposed to lead. The EPA and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality focus their cleanup efforts on properties with high lead levels that pose the greatest risk to children. So far, EPA has removed leaded soils from over 7,000 properties throughout the Silver Valley.

Ultimately, the 1973 baghouse fire set in motion an enormous amount of work to mitigate the devastating impacts that mining and smelting had had on the environment and the health of the people in the Silver Valley and downstream communities. That work has protected generations of children from elevated blood lead levels and transformed much of the landscape that contributed to the public health risks confronted by the region’s residents.

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