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Title: PURGING MINING'S POISONS - Cleaning up the Coeur d'Alene Basin
Author: John Osborn, M.D.
Date: March 14, 2000 | ID#: 000314
Category: Mining and Superfund
Keywords: Legislature, Mining, Superfund, Appropriations, Natural Resource Damage (NRD) Claim visits since November 28, 2002

visits since August 19, 2003

PURGING MINING'S POISONS - Cleaning up the Coeur d'Alene Basin

by John Osborn, M.D.

Each spring, tundra swans by the thousands fly into a river valley in north Idaho as part of their annual migration. For time beyond memory these beautiful white birds have splash landed in the wetlands of the lower Coeur d'Alene River where they feast on the plants. Each spring, many swans will die here. These wetlands are what biologists call the "killing fields." Swans are poisoned by the lead, a neurotoxin that paralyzes swallowing. Tunda swans starve to death in the midst of poisoned plenty.

Public health -- not just the dying swans -- is also a concern. Warning signs have been posted alerting people to the risk. Lead is a toxin not only for swans but for humans. Especially vulnerable are the children.

The pollution here has been ongoing longer than the state of Idaho has existed. Toxic mine waste, transported in the rivers, has been deposited from the Silver Valley near the Idaho-Montana state line, across the Idaho Panhandle, and into Washington State. Idaho's second largest lake, Lake Coeur d'Alene, has functioned as a tailings pond for the pollution. The lake bottom now holds billions of pounds of toxic sediments.

The Wall Street Journal, in a front page story that invoked Gulliver's Travels, described the enormous scale of this issue: "[Idaho's] Silver Valley is the American story written in a giant's hand with riches, wreckage and history on a Brobdinagian scale." The most powerful forces that shaped the American West converged here and left a poisoned river. All told, this is the worst such mining pollution on earth. Resurrecting this severely damaged watershed will be among the largest and most costly environmental clean-up efforts in history.


As Idaho State extends north towards its border with Canada, the state boundaries narrow. The so-called "Idaho Panhandle" is sandwiched between Montana and Washington states. This curious appendage to Idaho is an artifact of (and cursed by) 19th century state-making: boundaries drawn in Washington, D.C., in response to gold and silver rushes and President Grover Cleveland's goal that Idaho not follow Utah in becoming a second Mormon state.

Once pummeled by the greatest floods on earth, the Panhandle is comprised of flat valleys and rugged mountains. Along the eastern side of this narrow sliver of a state, the land rises up to form a spine separating Idaho and Montana: the Bitterroot Mountains.

Snow and rain falling on the Bitterroot forests give rise to Lake Coeur d'Alene and the Spokane River, eventually flowing into the Columbia River. Along these rivers, Indian peoples lived for thousands of years. Lake Coeur d'Alene was the center of the ancestral homeland for the Coeur d'Alene Indian Nation.

In contrast to southern Idaho's wide-open sagebrush deserts, the Coeur d'Alene's landscape is a closed-in complicated weave of streams flowing from narrow canyons. Geology is fractured and jumbled. "Veins" fabulously rich with silver, lead, zinc, and cadmium extended to the earth's surface.

Discovery of these rich veins in the early 1880s triggered an onrush of miners and an industrial boom that transformed the wilderness into one of the largest mining districts on earth: the Coeur d'Alene mining district in Idaho's "Silver Valley." The mineral wealth is so great that it has supported mining operations from the 1880s through 2000 - unique among the hard-rock mining districts of the West.

Hecla, Lucky Friday, Sunshine, Bunker Hill, and others were the greatest producers of silver in the western hemisphere. These mines produced much of the nation's lead used in industry, added to gasoline and house paints. In the Coeur d'Alene occurred some of the great engineering feats and technological advances in mining and smelting. The electrolytic process for producing nearly pure zinc was first used here on an industrial scale during the 1920s.

The Coeur d'Alenes have produced about $4 billion of metals for mining corporations, investors, and governments. Mineral riches attracted investors. Rockefeller and Guggenheim financial interests loomed large in the early 1900s. Even in the 1970s, the silver from the Silver Valley attracted the Hunt brothers of Texas, who launched their ill-fated schemes to corner the world's silver markets.


Two statues in Idaho - one in Boise and the other in the Coeur d'Alenes - stand as reminders of events that commanded a nation's attention. Just after Christmas in 1905, former Governor Steunenberg was assassinated in Caldwell. Steunenberg's statue stands in front of the state capitol building in Idaho. In 1972, ninety-one miners died underground - their names inscribed on a miner's statue standing vigil just off I-90 at the Big Creek exit, not far from the Sunshine Mine where they died. These two statues - hundreds of miles apart - are symbols of a rich and tragic Idaho story that centers in the Coeur d'Alene.

For nearly a century the Coeur d'Alene mining district was the largest industrial employer in Idaho. Pivotal events in the nation's labor movement occurred here. In 1892 miners responded to mine owners' efforts to break their union by blowing up the Frisco Mill near Wallace, Idaho. In 1899 miners, frustrated by persistent refusals to pay union wages, commandeered a train nicknamed the "Dynamite Express." 2000 Miners headed for Bunker Hill and the Sullivan concentrator, took it over, and blew it up in the "Second Battle of Bunker Hill."

In response, Idaho governor and former union ally, Frank Steunenberg, ordered federal troops against the miners. Marshall law was declared. Mine owners, backed by the U.S. military, worked to break the union. The harsh and sometimes brutal treatment of miners and their community supporters by federal troops left a lasting bitterness.

Steunenberg was assassinated in 1905 outside his home in Caldwell, Idaho. Assassin Harry Orchard implicated three labor leaders including "Big Bill" Haywood. The three were kidnapped in Denver and stood trial in Boise. In the Pacific Northwest's most famous trial, then-senator William Borah was the prosecuting attorney and Clarence Darrow argued for the defense. Darrow prevailed. Haywood, acquitted, went on to lead the Wobblies and eventually fled the country in 1918. Today Steunenberg's statue faces the capitol building in Boise, symbol of tragedy from the Coeur d'Alenes.

Working underground in the shafts was often perilous. Thousands of miners died during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Newspapers headlined the body counts from the disasters (often with death tolls in the hundreds). Public concern and the growing labor movement led state and federal governments to enact laws designed to protect and compensate workers. The nation's worst mine disaster since 1917 occurred in the Coeur d'Alenes when, in 1972, ninety-one miners died at the Sunshine Mine. In memory of the deaths that fixated the nation waiting for news from those smoking mine shafts, a statue of a miner was erected &emdash; symbol of tragedy in the Coeur d'Alenes.


The rich metal mines were located upstream from Idaho's second largest lake - Lake Coeur d'Alene. Beginning in the 1880s, mining companies dumped 72 million pounds of toxic mine waste into the waters of the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River.

Mining slimes and other industrial pollutants containing lead, cadmium, zinc, mercury, and arsenic gave the South Fork the appearance of gray milk. Locals dubbed the river "Lead Creek."

The river carried the toxic mine waste downstream, poisoning the Coeur d'Alene River valley, and ruining farmers. In 1903 farmers first sued the mining companies to stop the dumping. The companies generally prevailed in court. They quieted farmers by creating a "dead horse fund" to pay minor damages and by purchasing "pollution easements" that conveyed the legal right to pollute Coeur d'Alene Valley farmlands.

Mine wastes washing up on the beaches at Coeur d'Alene in the 1920s prompted a public outcry eventually heard by the Idaho Legislature far away in Boise. In Coeur d'Alene community leaders saw correctly this beautiful lake was in peril. The Coeur d'Alene Press published a series of articles called "Valley of Death" in 1929-1930. Press city editor John Knox Coe crusaded for an end to the dumping. The pollution of Lake Coeur d'Alene became a hot political issue in the 1930 election. When the Idaho Legislature convened in 1931, it established the Coeur d'Alene River and Lake Commission.

Several scientific analyses resulted from the Lake Commission's work. Dr. M. M. Ellis, working for the U.S. Department of Interior, conducted aquatic studies in 1932. He could not find fish in the river from Wallace to the lake. When he placed fish in cages near the mouth of the river, they died within three days, their gills choked with mucus. Dr. Ellis studied the South Fork for any life forms, and found it sterile from Wallace to its confluence with the North Fork. Dr. Ellis also documented that the mining slimes didn't stop in Idaho &emdash; but had moved at least twenty-five miles down the Spokane River into Washington State. In 1932 he recommended a stop to dumping mine waste in the river. Tragically, neither the mining companies nor Idaho state government heeded the advice and the dumping has continued.


In 1974 the corporate directors of Gulf Resources and Chemical Company of Houston, Texas, faced a decision: Should the company continue operating a damaged Bunker Hill lead smelter in Idaho?

The dilemma arose because in September, 1973, the lead smelter's primary pollution contol device, called the "baghouse," had burned. If Gulf continued operations it would vent lead-contaminated smoke directly into the air, poisoning surrounding communities and the vulnerable children who lived there.

But the price for lead was on the rise: Gulf stood to make millions of dollars if the directors continued operating the Bunker Hill lead smelter. President Nixon's price controls had just been lifted. Miners' and smelter workers' wages remained low. Lead prices were rocketing.

Early in 1974 the Gulf Resources' directors calculated what the corporate cost for each poisoned child would be. They used detailed information from El Paso, Texas, where an Asarco Inc. smelter caused health problems ranging from anemia and mental retardation to stomach aches and hyperactivity. Gulf's vice president Frank Woodruff figured the liability: "El Paso--200 children--$5 to $10,000 per kid," according to the notes from that meeting of the corporate directors. Gulf's directors estimated the liability at "6-7 million" for poisoning the 500 children in Kellogg, Idaho.

Gulf's directors knew they were putting an Idaho community at risk. In 1972 Gulf asked a Silver Valley physician to check lead levels for children in Kellogg: most of those checked were elevated. Gulf responded by moving salaried employees out of harm's way. Wage workers, in contrast, were never warned.

The corporate "bottom line" determined the decision of Gulf's directors: Gulf would continue operating the smelter and poison the surrounding communities.

The communities of Kellogg and Smelterville suffered as much lead contamination in the first three months of 1974 as they would have in 20 years of normal smelter operations. Idaho's state government (which had no lead regulations to enforce) documented lead accumulation in excess of 30 tons per square mile over one year's time in Kellogg. But not until April did the Boise-based government take effective action to stop the smelter's operation. Gulf then repaired the lead smelter's pollution control devices.

Some of the highest levels of lead ever recorded in humans were being recorded in Idaho by August, 1974. A young girl, Arlene Yoss, had blood lead levels of 174 mg/dl (micrograms per deciliter, with 10 mg being the current threshold of concern); her sister Edie, 122; and her brother Ray, 111.

In 1977 the Yosses and another family sued Gulf Resources for $20 million. In 1981 the families settled for $6.5 - $8.8 million, depending upon how long the children lived. Other children later joined the original families in seeking damages from Gulf, bringing the total costs of settlement to about $30 million. The court records were then sealed from the public &emdash; later to be opened in 1990 by Judge Ryan.


In 1981 Gulf closed the Bunker Hill smelter, Idaho's largest employer, putting nearly 2,200 employees out of work and devastating the local economy. Meanwhile Gulf earned more than $88 million in tax credits through the 1981 tax reform laws. In 1982 Gulf sold the Bunker Hill properties for $9.8 million to Bunker Limited Partnership of Jack Kendrick, J.R. Simplot, Harry Magnuson, and Duane Hagadone.

Bunker Limited Partnership had help from Idaho politicians. James McClure (former U.S. Senator, a director for mining and timber corporations, and lobbyist in Washington, D.C., for mining companies) helped secure the appointment of Robie Russell as EPA's regional administrator in 1986 and 1989.

Russell thwarted his EPA staff, blocking them from inspecting mining operations. Bunker LTD then dismantled and sold parts of the Bunker Hill complex: in 1987 Bunker LTD removed about 4 miles of lead-contaminated railroad rails and more than 1,000 wooden ties. What Bunker LTD did with the salvaged materials remains largely unknown, but it was speculated that railroad ties were sold in nearby Spokane for residential landscaping.

Ultimately EPA staff secretly contacted the ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) which then took steps to protect human health. Russell's actions were later documented in a 1990 report by the Inspector General investigating Russell. Immediately prior to the report's release Russell abruptly resigned as regional director of EPA.

Bunker LTD was not alone in trying to dodge clean-up costs &emdash; Gulf Resources also worked to transfer assets. In 1989 Gulf's move to Bermuda was blocked by EPA and the Dept. of Justice (DOJ). EPA and DOJ failed, however, to block subsequent Gulf efforts at transferring assets out of the United States. Gulf corporate officials, led by David Rowland and Graham F. Lacey, were later accused of systematically looting $175 million between 1989 and 1992. Gulf left behind enormous debts to pensioners in Idaho and Washington, debts for the cleanup, and debts to bondholders. As a result of bankruptcy proceedings ending in 1994, pensioners lost 25 percent of their medical benefits. Most of the company's clean-up debt (estimated at $100 million) has been subsidized by public monies, including Superfund.

IDAHO'S TOXIC FLOODS: when Mine Wastes mix with Clearcuts

In a single day of the 1996 flood, the raging Coeur d'Alene River carried a million pounds of lead into Lake Coeur d'Alene. The source of the lead? Mining companies had dumped the lead and other toxic mine wastes into the Coeur d'Alene River's South Fork. Upstream of the old Catholic Mission at Cataldo, the South Fork joins with the North Fork. The co-mingling of waters is a metaphor for the coming together of two rich histories &emdash; logging and mining &emdash; that are the genesis of Idaho's toxic floods. The South Fork was destroyed by mining. The North Fork was destroyed by a "conspiracy of optimism".

In the book A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests since World War Two (University of Nebraska Press, 1994) historian Paul Hirt writes, "[There exists] a general cultural tendency to reject limitations on resource use and to assume the optimistic regarding our ability to control nature and resolve social problems with environmental engineering. This is the conspiracy of optimism."

Forest Service officials signed their names to decisions unleashing one destructive timber sale after another on the North Fork. Timber companies bulldozed roads, then slicked away the "green gold" of the Coeur d'Alenes. By the late 1990s, vast areas of forest canopy were gone. Total miles of logging roads stood at about 7,000 on the Coeur d'Alene National Forest. Average densities of logging roads exceeded 11 road miles per square mile of forest &emdash; up to 20-30 road miles in some areas &emdash; the highest of any of the 156 National Forests in the United States.

People driving on I-90 (built for miles atop toxic mine waste) or the river road that winds along the North Fork won't see the clearcuts hidden behind the deceptive "beauty strips." This thin curtain of trees is not a substitute for an intact forest watershed: illusions don't hold back floods.

Much of the North Fork's forest lies in "rain-on-snow" zones where warm winter rains rapidly melt several feet of snow, causing floods. Bulldozing roads and clearcutting away forest canopy worsens the floods. Similar to a huge high-pressure hoses, North Fork floods rip out stream banks and bottoms. Rubble (called "bedload" sediment as opposed to "fine" sediment or mud) settles in slower water, fills up pools and destroys fish habitat. In this way the Coeur d'Alene's trout fishery &emdash; one of most important in the Inland Pacific Northwest &emdash; was devastated. Rubble also has clogged the main river channel, making floods even worse.

One compelling part of the North Fork story is that the warnings against overcutting have gone unheeded for so long. The general relationship between overcutting and floods was well-understood in the last century &emdash; a main reason that the nation created the National Forests. The North Fork's severe flood risk from logging in rain-on-snow zones was articulated by Panhandle hydrologists as early as the 1960s. Supervisory hydrologist Al Isaacson warnings can be found in a 1974 book The River of Green and Gold (Fred Rabe and David Flaherty). Warnings unheeded, overcutting continued.

Forest Service managers silenced Isaacson and other resource specialists by transferring them off of the Idaho Panhandle. Isaacson quit instead. Overcutting continued.

In 1985 conservationists, prompted by scientists' warnings, began taking concerns about the Panhandle watersheds to Congress. The logging continued. Conservationists spent years participating in the Congressionally-mandated Forest Planning process, eventually appealing the eight-pound Panhandle Forest Plan in 1987, providing over 700 pages of supporting documents. Almost eight years later, in 1995, the Chief's office finally decided and rejected conservationists' concerns entirely.

In 1990 "Forest Watch" was launched by The Lands Council to support local citizens efforts to stop overcutting. On the Coeur d'Alene National Forest, Bob Ligeza, Mike Mihelich, John Bentley, Fred Bardelli, and others struggled against a blizzard of timber sale documents. The Forest Service, caught breaking the law, withdrew illegal and destructive timber sales (often re-issuing the same decision with slicker documents). Timber offerings plummeted. The response from the timber industry, Forest Service, and Congress was to target the appeals process. In 1995 Congress suspended the appeals process altogether with the 1995 so-called "Salvage Rider".

The New York Times featured the North Fork in a major news story , "Quiet Roads Bring Thundering Protests: Congress to Battle over who pays to get to National Forest Trees" (May 23, 1997). On the floor of the U.S. Senate, Sen. Bryan (D-Nev.) spoke of the destruction of the Coeur d'Alene National Forest, asking his colleagues to end the Congressional subsidy used to build logging roads.

In 1996 the Department of Justice file suit against mining corporations for damages estimated at up to $1 billion for polluting the Coeur d'Alene River. Meanwhile another federal agency, the USDA Forest Service, continued to log the watershed above the mine waste and still has no comprehensive plan to allow the forest canopies to grow back, and maintain or remove thousands of miles of logging roads.

As of this writing the Forest Service continues to plan more timber sales on this tortured, clearcut landscape. A "conspiracy of optimism" still rules the Coeur d'Alene National Forest. Downstream communities in Idaho and Washington remain at risk from the toxic floods.


In 1980, responding to the poisoning of communities such as New York's Love Canal, Congress enacted Superfund (or CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act) to clean industrial toxins and make polluters pay.

Beginning at least in the 1980s, Idaho politicians have worked to shield mining corporations from paying for cleaning-up the Coeur d'Alene. In the 1990s, Idaho politicians even went so far as to try persuading their colleagues in Congress to rewrite Superfund.

In 1982 EPA used Superfund authority to start the process of protecting the people of the Coeur d'Alene watershed from the mine wastes. In 1983 under President Ronald Reagan, EPA designated the 21-square-mile Bunker Hill Superfund Site within the larger basin area, to address the immediate, localized health threats to the communities surrounding the Gulf smelter. Clean-up has focused on this arbitrary "box", largely ignoring the rest of the polluted river system that stretches 150 miles from the Montana stateline across north Idaho, through Spokane to the Columbia River.

In 1983 Idaho Attorney General Jim Jones filed a Natural Resource Damage lawsuit (under Superfund) against mining companies seeking $50 million for estimated clean-up costs outside the Superfund "box." In Boise, however, money necessary for an Idaho State lawsuit against the mining companies curiously disappeared from legislative budget bills. In 1986 Idaho settled with mining corporations for $4.5 million. Coeur d'Alene clean-up estimates range from $600 million to $3 billion.

In 1996 Idaho Senator Larry Craig, the highest mining-PAC-paid member of Congress, introduced a bill for the Coeur d'Alene. This bill allowed the polluting mining companies to escape liability by transferring clean-up oversight from EPA to Idaho state government and preventing any existing or future damage claims for cleanup from being pursued against the companies. Idaho would not, however, assume liability for clean-up costs. Under Craig's bill, no one -- the polluting companies, the State, or the federal government -- had a duty to actually clean up the pollution.

In 1997 Idaho Senator Dirk Kempthorne (and current governor) co-sponsored and added to Craig's Coeur d'Alene bill. Kempthorne attached an amendment to Superfund reauthorization, transferring authority for the Coeur d'Alene clean-up from EPA to the governor of Idaho (Section 705 of S. 8). Idaho's governor (and the mining corporations) would control decisions on the clean-up - allowing Idaho's jurisdictional reach across the state line into Washington waters. The measure was not passed.

In a small state like Idaho, unseemly relationships between corporations and politicians, while not unique, help explain policy decisions. The money trail leading from mining corporations to Idaho politicians is clearly marked and much traveled. And even in "retirement," Idaho politicians serve mining corporations: the state's former senior senator, Jim McClure, became a director of Coeur d'Alene Mines and a leading corporate lobbyist blocking reform of the 1872 mining law.

This year Gov. Kempthorne traveled to Spokane to announce the mining companies' offer to pay perhaps $250 million for the clean-up - depending on future metal prices. Future solvency and profits would be pay for past pollution. Solvency and the transfer of corporate assets off-shore remains a concern barely a decade after Gulf Resources transferred $175 million overseas and then declared bankruptcy here in the United States.

In July, Idaho state government preempted EPA's anticipated clean-up proposal due in December by announcing an overall $478 million clean-up proposal (ranging between $408 million and $670 million). Idaho acknowledged for the first time federal dollars would be needed for the clean-up: $200 million of federal Superfund monies. (Under Superfund the state has to match at least 10 percent of the federal cleanup dollars, and Idaho's tab would be about $36 million.) Past as prologue: Given the role of Idaho state government in the pollution, cleanup proposals presented by the state need to be viewed with caution, if not skepticism.

The response of Idaho politicians to cleaning up the Coeur d'Alene has been consistent and disappointing: supporting short-term economic interests over the long-term public interest of communities in both Idaho and Washington states.


Nearly 80 percent of the nearly half million people who live in the Spokane River&emdash;Lake Coeur d'Alene watershed live on the downstream side in Washington State.

Politically, the Idaho-Washington state line bifurcates the watershed. State governments in Olympia and Boise are distant. Members of Congress representing this region include two senators and a representative from each state. A glance at demographics reveals this watershed to be a political "vacuum" &emdash; with most Idaho voters living in the Snake River plain; Washington voters, in Puget Sound. Spokane's Tom Foley while Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, eventually supported a major clean-up helped with public financing. But his defeat in 1994 over term-limits and other national governance issues relegated the Spokane region back to political obscurity.

In 1996 conservationists took the pollution issue to people living along the river and lake. A small army of volunteers went door to door along the Spokane River, placing small bags on the front door of 10,000 homes. The bags contained information, including a videotape, "Get the Lead Out," produced by The Lands Council with funding from Washington State Dept. of Ecology. The Council produced a similar videotape for Coeur d'Alene (without Ecology money), and delivered "Get the Lead Out" to neighborhoods and, by canoe, to docks around the lake.

"The … Lands Council has called for a cleanup approach that resembles the successful 1992 multijurisdictional one launched to clean Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. That seems a far more promising approach than letting Idaho go it alone, " opined the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on June 3, 1996.

Idaho has demonstrated for more than a century that it is unwilling and incapable of correcting this problem. With Idaho pollution is flowing across the state line, and much at stake for downstream communities, Washington State government is increasingly engaged in decisions about the clean-up.

During the 1990s Washington state established a record of involvement in the clean-up. Since 1992, scientists with the Department of Ecology have collected data on the lead, cadmium, and zinc flowing into Washington from Idaho. In 1997 the Washington legislature allocated $300,000 to further assess the environmental and health impacts of upstream mining pollution on the Spokane River. Washington Attorney General, Christine Gregoire, objected to proposed legislation by Senators Kempthorne and Craig, and filed a legal brief with the federal courts asserting Washington's interests as a recipient of Idaho's poisons. In March 1998, Senator Patty Murray formally asked her colleagues from Idaho, Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne, for a bi-state effort to clean-up these shared waters.

Washington State's role as a defender of the public interest, however tardy, is essential.


After a century of pollution, neglect, and willful ignorance, the EPA has taken first steps toward cleaning up the entire Spokane River-Lake Coeur d'Alene basin.

In 1983 EPA established the Bunker Hill Superfund facility upstream from Lake Coeur d'Alene. The area of remediation initially covered only a small fraction of the polluted watershed: a 3 mile by 7 mile rectangle. This 21-square-mile "box" included the communities of Kellogg and Smelterville, heavily contaminated by the Bunker Hill Lead Smelter. Inside the box, EPA concentrated its first clean-up efforts.

The box doesn't work as a strategy for cleaning the entire polluted watershed. Every day thousands of pounds of hazardous waste washes into the rivers, lakes and streams outside of the Box. Lead levels for children are elevated upstream and downstream. Mine waste kills swans, waterfowl, aquatic species, and other life outside the Box.

In February 1998, EPA publicly announced it would study the full extent of mining pollution in the 1500-square-mile Spokane-Coeur d'Alene river ecosystem. This study is formally termed a "RI/FS" (remedial investigation/feasibility study), and is a detailed examination of the geographic extent of the pollution, along with a preliminary study of possible remedies.

EPA's newly announced RI/FS will track hazardous wastes wherever located, not just inside the Box. The RI/FS will follow polluted waters from the Idaho-Montana border, across Idaho, through downtown Spokane, and into Lake Roosevelt.

The response to EPA's effort by the two states, Washington and Idaho, has been a study in contrasts. Washington State officials have generally supported EPA in this clean-up effort to protect downstream Washington residents. But upstream in Idaho, the attacks on EPA have been vicious and relentless.

Opposition to the clean-up in Coeur d'Alene can partly be explained by the financial risk. Money helps explain the depth of local opposition to the clean-up. Mining companies are liable for damages for polluting the river ecosystem.

Opposition to EPA also comes from some leaders in Coeur d'Alene's business community. The public perception of Lake Coeur d'Alene as pristine (or at least clean) helps support major regional economies in tourism, real estate, and recreation. Even proposals to study the mining pollution, as a first step to clean-up, have sparked opposition.

In the town of Coeur d'Alene, investment capital has a foot in both mining and tourism/real estate. Mining corporations based in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, include Hecla and Coeur d'Alene Mines. The Coeur d'Alene Press, a frequent critic of EPA (among others working to restore the watershed), is owned by Duane Hagadone, a prominent Idaho figure in mining, tourism, and real estate.

Money flows into politics. A former Kempthorne staffer and current mayor of Coeur d'Alene, Steve Judy, led efforts to stop the RI/FS: the city of Coeur d'Alene and Kootenai County filed legal briefs in federal court trying to stop the analysis of the pollution and possible remedies.

On June 15 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a 1998 lower court decision by an Idaho federal judge, Edward Lodge, that had favored mining companies. EPA argued, and the Appeals Court agreed, that establishing the 1983 Bunker Hill Superfund Site also gave EPA the authority to clean-up the pollution in the larger Coeur d'Alene Basin, an area of 1,500 square miles. EPA's contingency plan of designating additional Superfund sites proved unnecessary.

"Cleanup actions can be taken wherever hazardous materials have come to be located and present a risk to human health or the environment," Ted Yackulic, assistant counsel in EPA's Region 10, told the Coeur d'Alene Press (7/30/00). Thus Superfund monies are available for clean-up without having to list additional sites throughout the Coeur d'Alene Basin, side-stepping the concerns about the stigma of additional Superfund Sites.


Central to purging the poisons will be water quality plans called TMDLs (Total Maximum Daily Load). TMDLs will provide the standards and goals for the Coeur d'Alene cleanup, and will be used as part of the RI/FS process.

These water quality plans are required under the federal Clean Water Act. In Idaho, failure of the State of Idaho and EPA to finish adequate TMDLs for the Coeur d'Alene region have prompted lawsuits by conservation organizations.

As described above, the problems in the Coeur d'Alene are two-fold: (1) heavy metal pollution (from the South Fork) and (2) floods (mostly from the North Fork). Two TMDLs are currently underway: one to address the toxics, and another the sediment (called "bedload") in the North Fork.

In 1998 EPA issued a draft toxics TMDL for the toxics that meets so-called "gold book standards," the highest national water quality standards. In contrast, Idaho recently obtained authorization from EPA to use "site specific" criteria for clean-up standards - a far less stringent approach. The difference is substantial between the site-specific standards and gold-book standards. How EPA will resolve the conflict is unclear.

The TMDL for the flooding on the North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River is being written by Idaho State. Not surprisingly given the links between Idaho state government and natural resource companies, the preliminary documents conclude that trees still standing in this clearcut landscape can be logged - and the money used to fix problems resulting from thousands of miles of logging roads. "Logging the watershed back to health" promises more flooding, carrying the poisons into Lake Coeur d'Alene and Washington State.


In the wake of the 1858 battles of Four Lakes and Plains of Spokane, Col. George Wright marched United States troops up the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene Rivers to the steps of the Catholic Mission at Cataldo. The Jesuits helped negotiate a peace between the United States, and the Coeur d'Alene and Spokane Tribes. The Coeur d'Alene Indian Nation later signed treaties in 1873 and again in 1889 (a year before Idaho became a state).

The mining pollution that started in the 1880s has poisoned the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's ancestral homeland - the Coeur d'Alene River Valley and Lake Coeur d'Alene. A century later, in the 1980s, this Tribe began formal efforts to recover its homeland utilizing the Superfund Law. In doing so, the Tribe stood against the combined power of mining corporations and Idaho politicians.

When EPA designated the Bunker Hill Superfund "box" in 1983, the Tribal Council protested. The Tribe recognized that most of the 70 million tons of mine wastes dumped into the river exited the Box, washing downstream.

In 1991 the Coeur d'Alene Indian Nation filed a lawsuit for natural resource damages against several mining companies and Union Pacific Railroad. Federal laws allow sovereign governments (such as states and tribes) to bring such actions. The Tribe subsequently filed (and won) a related lawsuit over ownership of Lake Coeur d'Alene as a part of the comprehensive clean-up effort. Idaho state government appealed the ruling, claiming in part it has shown good stewardship of the lake (the bottom of which is covered with an estimated 165 billion pounds of toxic sediments from the mines).

The Tribe has settled with two of the defendants, Coeur d'Alene Mines (in 1992 for $350,000) and with Union Pacific Railroad. Union Pacific has agreed to clean-up, cap, and maintain into the future 72 miles of abandoned rail bed polluted by a century of hauling ores.

ASARCO and Hecla are two major mining corporations that have not settled with the Tribe for damages from the mining pollution. The 1991 lawsuit will go to trial in late 2000. This will be a monumental legal undertaking, putting 120 years of pollution history before the federal courts and the public.

The journey for the Coeur d'Alene Nation has been led by tribal elders with courage and vision. Foremost among them was tribal elder Henry Sijohn. Although SiJohn died in 1999, his work continues on. Sijohn's legacy will be the cleansing of these polluted waters. With state and federal governments faltering, Henry Sijohn led the Coeur d'Alene Tribe into becoming the de facto defender of the greater public interest.


Discovery of rich veins of silver and lead &emdash; among the world's richest &emdash; drew thousands of miners to the Idaho wilderness starting in the 1880s. Today the mines have mostly bottomed out and closed. What remains is mining's pollution legacy - over 70 million tons of toxic waste dumped into the Coeur d'Alene River.

A 150-mile pollution plume flows with the water: from the Idaho-Montana line, across Idaho State, and into eastern Washington. Wetlands, lake bottoms, and river banks and channels are laced with lead, cadmium, and zinc. Toxic mine waste has washed into homes and communities and settled into people's lives. Beginning in 1903 farmers worked to stop the mine-waste dumping. Warnings - decade after decade - went unheeded. As a result, innocent children have been poisoned. Wildlife - including thousands of swans -- have died. An entire watershed has been polluted.

Today the Spokane region and federal agencies are struggling with the worst-case mining pollution of its type in the world. Recovering these waterways will require a comprehensive plan and a commitment of political will and money. Clean-up costs are now estimated at up to $3 billion.

Dodging the clean-up and costs has been an all too painful part of the Coeur d'Alene pollution history. In the 1980s the Idaho Legislature withheld funding from the state Attorney General's lawsuit to recover damages from mining companies. Idahoan Robie Russell, appointed to head the EPA's regional office with help from Idaho politicians, used his power to block the clean-up of Bunker Hill Superfund Site. In the late 1980s Gulf Resources transferred $175 million out of the United States, leaving behind inadequately funded clean-up efforts and workers' pensions.

Mining companies will likely pay for cleaning-up some of their pollution. Yet applying all of the assets of ASARCO, Hecla, and other potentially responsible mining companies probably will not be enough to pay for the clean-up. Public financing - either money from Superfund or direct appropriations from governments based in Boise, Olympia, and Washington, D.C. - will be necessary.

Mining companies have tenaciously fought a century-long battle over their pollution &emdash; first to continue dumping waste and now to keep from having to clean it up. Attacks from the mining companies and their allies against those working for clean-up have been vicious and unrelenting. While inexcusable, these attacks are not surprising considering the magnitude of the clean-up costs. Someone will have to pay: the polluting companies or the public through various funding options.

Beginning in the 1980s the Coeur d'Alene Indian Nation has led the effort to restore its polluted ancestral homeland. The Tribe's effort has now been joined by conservationists, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Washington State.

Washington State plans an especially important role in assuring that a long-term plan for clean-up is adequate, funded, and actually implemented. Most of the people inhabiting the polluted river system live downstream of the Idaho-Washington state line. Washingtonians are vulnerable to the decisions made in Idaho. The region's beauty does not stop at the state lines; neither do the poisons.

The lakes and rivers of the region are celebrated and held dear by the people who live here. Indeed a world's fair was held at the waterfall in Spokane. Expo '74 was the first international exposition to trumpet an environmental theme. Expo '74 was a watershed event, marking the flowering of an environmental ethic in the Spokane region.

In the spring of 1974 - while the smokestacks at the Bunker Hill smelter were spewing lead over the communities and poisoning the children - finishing touches were placed on Expo '74 . On May 4, eighty-five thousand people gathered at Spokane Falls for the opening ceremonies. On a stage floating in the river, Danny Kaye spoke on behalf of all the children of the world and the importance of our environment. His statement is a fitting, uplifting closure to this sordid Idaho story of pollution. "We believe," Kaye said,

  • that the universe is a grand design in which man and nature are one.
  • That planet earth, a small part of the universe, is the residence of mortal man whose needs and aspirations are limited by the finite resources of planet earth and man's own finite existence.
  • That man is the custodian of his environment as the environment is the custodian of man.
  • That man, in his growing wisdom, will renounce the age-old boast of conquering nature, lest nature conquer man.
  • That the skies and the seas and the bountiful earth from which man draws his sustenance are the preserves of all mankind and that in the brotherhood they derive from nature, the nations of the earth will join together in the preservation of the fragile natural heritage of our planet.
  • We believe -
  • In the restoration of the reverence of nature which once filled our own land where the American Indian roamed in respectful concert with his environment.
  • We believe -
  • That the human spirit itself must set its own limitations to achieve a beauty and order and the diversity that will fill the hearts of the children of the world with a new and happier vision of their destiny.
  • That from this City of Spokane there goes forth today to the world the message and challenge that the time of great environmental awakening is a hand.
  • All this we believe.


Nicholas A. Casner, "Toxic River: Politics and Coeur d'Alene Mining Pollution in the 1930's". Idaho Yesterdays. Idaho State Historical Society, Fall, 1991. Vol. 35, No. 3.

Kathie Durbin, "Poisoned Promises: The Silver Valley's Toxic Legacy" The Oregonian, April 7, 1992

John Fahey. Hecla: A Century of Western Mining. University of Washington Press. 1990

John M. Gunn, Ed. Restoration and Recovery of an Industrial Region: Progress in Restoring the Smelter-Damaged Landscape near Sudbury, Canada. Springer-Verlag, 1995.

J. Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America. Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Fred Rabe and David Flaherty. The River of Green and Gold, Idaho Research Foundation, 1974.

J. William T. Youngs. The Fair and the Falls: Spokane's Expo '74, Transforming an American Environment. Eastern Washington University Press, 1996


[copyright © John Osborn, 2000]