Railroads & Clearcuts

Toxic Lake Coeur d'Alene

A century of mining in Idaho's Silver Valley has resulted in millions of tons of toxic sediment washed down the Coeur d'Alene and St. Joe Rivers into Lake Coeur d'Alene.
From the lake, heavy metals are flowing into the Spokane River, which is being
subjected to lead, cadmium, arsenic, zinc, and other toxins
at hundreds of times greater than normal levels.

Lawsuits have been filed for a century, seeking to stop the pollution. The corporations claimed that mining was good for the economy. In 1929 the Coeur d'Alene Press published a series of news articles detailing the impacts of mine pollution on ranching, agriculture, and fisheries. Farmers filed more lawsuits, seeking compensation for poisoned crops and cattle.

The Bunker Hill lead smelter in Kellogg began operating in 1917. It released 300 pounds of lead into the atmosphere every day. In 1973, a fire at the Bunker Hill smelter damaged the air pollution control equipment. The operator, Gulf Resources, chose to continue pumping lead directly into the air rather than shut down for repairs. The directors decided that the profits outweighed the potential liability they calculated for causing lead poisoning to 500 children in Kellogg. In 1974, some of the highest blood lead levels ever recorded were found within children living near the smelter.

Bunker Hill was shut down in 1982, and was declared a Superfund site in 1983. Clean-up of the 21-mile-square site surrounding the mine in Kellogg finally began in 1995. The designated Superfund site includes 1,500 houses. The biggest concern is lead contamination--lead which has caused brain damage in fetuses and in children, and the biggest epidemic of childhood lead poisoning ever recorded. EPA contractors put 20 million cubic yards of mine tailings into a poorly-designed landfill adjacent to the Kellogg Middle School football field. Waste is in direct contact with groundwater. Thousands of birds and mammals in the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene deltas have died of lead poisoning.

In 1998 the EPA announced it would expand its investigation of toxic waste to the entire 1500-square-mile Spokane-Coeur d'Alene River ecosystem. Eighty percent of the people who live in this area are in Washington State. Idaho politicans are attempting to block Washington State from becoming involved in cleaning up the Spokane River, and to prevent the EPA from expanding its Superfund probe. State and federal studies have shown that blood lead levels outside the designated Superfund site are three times as high as the national average. These politicans include U.S. Senators Dirk Kempthorne and Larry Craig, and officials from the city of Coeur d'Alene and from Kootenai County.

In 1980 then-U.S. Senator Jim McClure added an amendment to the Clean Air Act which allowed Bunker Hill to use super-tall smokestacks--which spread the pollution even further, and denuded several square miles around the smelter. Idaho attorney Robie Russell was appointed regional administrator for the EPA, and when charged by the EPA Inspector General with obstructing the clean-up of Bunker Hill, abruptly resigned. In 1986 the State of Idaho settled its damage claims with four mining corporations for $4.5 million. Gulf Resources tried to have the legal record show that it had never owned or operated the smelter at Bunker Hill. In 1989, Gulf Resources began transferring $160 million out of the U.S. to avoid paying for the clean-up. In 1990 McClure retired from the Senate and began lobbying for the mining corporations. He now sits on the board of Coeur d'Alene Mines (so did former Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus). In the 1996, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and the U.S. Department of Justice filed lawsuits seeking clean-up costs of up to $1 billion; Hecla Mining filed a countersuit claiming that the government had failed to regulate its historical releases. In 1997, Coeur d'Alene Mines shareholders filed a suit against the corporation for fraud and misrepresentation of its environmental problems in Chile and New Zealand.

On February 10, 1996, during a flood brought on by excessive clearcutting and roadbuilding, a million pounds of lead were flushed into Lake Coeur d'Alene. The politicos propose to lower water quality standards and liability even further.

Mines are still operating in the Silver Valley,
and they are still releasing toxic waste:


For more information and to get involved, contact:

The Lands Council's Get the LEAD Out! campaign
telephone (509) 838-4912