Your Place or Mine: EPA vs. the Economy in the Silver Valley Mining 

As feds mull more cleanup, residents wonder if the EPA has worn out its welcome

Inside the 1313 Club in Wallace hangs one of those novelty signs: "On this site in 1897 nothing happened." Above the sign is the mounted head of a buffalo, and next to it, on one snowy afternoon in January, two guys in plaid are drinking a couple of Bud Lights.

The menus tell that the 1313 got its name because there were already 12 saloons and 12 brothels operating in Wallace when it opened. Apocryphal, maybe, but given Wallace's rowdy history of boozing and whoring--fueled by fortunes mined from the surrounding mountains--it might as well be true.

And despite how things might look on a lazy Saturday in the dead of winter, it's definitely not true that nothing happened in Wallace in 1897.

Between 1884 and 2009, more than 1.2 billion troy ounces of silver, 8 million tons of lead and 3.2 million tons worth as much as $6.5 billion were dug from the aptly named Silver Valley. Heralded as the "Silver Capital of the World," the valley--which is part of what is also known as the Coeur d'Alene Mining District--remains one of the richest mining areas in the world.

But, while mining companies still operate throughout the area, much of the wealth has dried up. Who's to blame is a tricky question.

Heedless of the long-term effects, mine corporations dumped an estimated 62 million tons of waste into the valley's creeks between 1884 and 1968, including as many as 880,000 tons of lead and 720,000 tons of zinc. The resulting impact was one of the largest environmental disasters in United States history.

At least 21 square miles of land around the smelting complexes in Kellogg and Smelterville were heavily contaminated, and by the mid- to late-1970s it was becoming clear to federal officials that something needed to be done about it.

While the tip-off might have been the vast swaths of vegetation killed off by mine slag and smelter emissions, the proof was in blood-lead level tests of children living within a mile of major smelting activity in Kellogg: a full 98 percent of them were found to have dangerous amounts of the heavy metals in their system--namely, lead.

A neurotoxin, lead is an especially insidious contaminant. The results of high exposure to lead include learning disabilities, decreased IQ and other ailments. Because it is deposited into the bones, the effects can last a lifetime.

Those afflicted with lead-related illnesses in the valley are reluctant to talk about it. But, as recounted in reports and studies of the area, one of the most extreme cases of lead exposure was found in August 1974 in two of Marlene Yoss' three children. The children were found to have lead levels of 122 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dl) and 111 ug/dl, and while there is no such thing as safe level of lead exposure, doctors generally consider a reading of 10 ug/dl to be the acceptable upper limit. According to accounts, Yoss was told by doctors that she had "walking dead babies."

In the 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency swooped into the valley and investigated. When it was found that some mine owners had been skirting regulations while knowingly poisoning surrounding residents, many of the major operations were shut down, including Kellogg's Bunker Hill Mining Company, which employed thousands of workers.

By 1983 the first superfund site in the region was established--the Bunker Hill Superfund Site--and work began on the 21-square-mile "box" around the former smelter in Kellogg.

In the ensuing decades, the once-fabulously rich Silver Valley has become better known as the second largest superfund cleanup site in the United States and home to a long-standing EPA presence as the agency continues a sweeping remediation effort that includes everything from water treatment and blood-lead level testing, to home inspections and ripping up and replacing residents' lawns.

Efforts to clean residential and commercial property­--the most visible method being the replacement of yards--were declared complete in 2008, and blood-lead levels have fallen to within the acceptable range. Still the reputation, along with continued EPA scrutiny, still lingers.

Understandably, "nation's biggest toxic waste dump" isn't a title that the seven communities in the Silver Valley relish, and they're fed up with it--especially now that the EPA is fronting a new $1.34 billion plan that would expand cleanup efforts to the Upper Basin of the Coeur d'Alene River and keep remediation work in the area going for another 50 to 90 years.

"The vast majority of the people up here have a reasonable outlook and appreciate that some of the cleanup may have been needed that was done before," said Wallace Mayor Dick Vester, who also works as the town's optometrist. "But we don't want the stigma of a superfund site for another 50 to 90 years."

The Center of the Universe

Wallace, population 880, is the seat of Shoshone County and also happens to be the Center of the Universe. At least that's what it says on a pair of signs posted at the intersection of Bank and Sixth streets.

According to Wallace Inn manager Rick Shaffer--whose title as Idaho Recreation and Park Association tourism representative is shortened locally to "Prime Minister of Wallace"--the signs originated back in 2002 when "the EPA was here beating us up" and a couple of guys were sitting in a neighborhood bar hashing out their opinions of the agency.

"Supposedly the EPA has a theory of probability that says if something cannot not be proved to exist, it could just as well exist. So they decided that the manhole cover at the corner of Sixth and Bank is the Center of Universe," Shaffer said. "You can't prove it's not, so it might as well be."

The town has really played up the joke, complete with banners proclaiming its universal centrality and hosting regular celebrations at the site. Tourists can be seen posing next to the signs, people are married there and a "Miss Center of the Universe" was proclaimed in 2007.

Kellogg, by far Shoshone County's largest city with about 2,400 residents, has displayed a similarly wry sense of humor, proclaiming that the donkey of town founder Noah Kellogg was responsible for discovering the area's mineral wealth, and thus, "This is the town founded by a jackass and inhabited by his descendants."

But beneath the Silver Valley's self-deprecating humor and sly references to bordellos and wild saloons is a seething frustration with the hand that the region has been dealt. Anti-EPA sentiment is rife, and in the past has grown heated enough to prompt police protection for some agency employees at public meetings.

"The EPA's been loose for 20 or 30 years, and we've been hyper-sensitive of the stigma," Shaffer explained. "Who's going to book a trip, spend their money, take a week, two weeks from their job to go see a superfund site? It's just not realistic."

According to many, it's also unrealistic to expect the remaining mining companies to operate with the EPA breathing down their necks, and the belief is widespread that the Silver Valley can't thrive without a return to robust mining activity.

"With silver at $30 an ounce, there should be investment people filling up the Silver Valley, but they're going to Chile, Bolivia and South Africa because they can deal with Third World countries easier than they can the EPA," Vester said. "And that's a shame."

But mining isn't dead in the valley. Hecla Mining Company--one of the key firms in the area--is working on a major shaft expansion and looking to plunk down millions in research and development. Meanwhile, as announced on Jan. 12, Kellogg-based United Mining Group signed a milling contract with New Jersey Mining Company that will result in $2.3 million in expansion.

The vision of the area as a toxic dump also isn't realistic, Shaffer maintains. He points to growing tourism draws like the Kellogg's Silver Mountain Resort, which boasts the longest single-cabin gondola in the world; a 40,000-square-foot water park; the new Galena Ridge nine-hole golf course; Old Mission State Park, which features Idaho's oldest standing building; and the dozens of local festivals, celebrations, historic tours, museums and attractions that dot the valley. That's not to mention the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes, which connects 72 miles of paved bike routes with hundreds of miles of trail systems in both Montana and Washington.

For the Silver Valley to survive, Shaffer explained, it's going to take a little bit of effort from every industry.

"We have to honor our history and mining is definitely a big part of the area, but it's not enough," he said. "It's a total misnomer that we're some devastated former mining area. There's lots of energy."

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