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Title: "Valley of Death"
Author: John Osborn, MD
Date: July 1, 1994 | ID#: 940701
Category: Coeur d'Alene Superfund
Keywords: Valley of Death, Mine Operators Association, Bunker Hill, pollution easements, Lake Coeur d'Alene 

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by John Osborn, MD

"Valley of Death" published in 1929-1930 was a courageous campaign by a small town newspaper in north Idaho, the Coeur d'Alene Press, waged to protect clean waters of the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene watershed. Today, more than 60 years later, it is worth remembering the desperate and prophetic work of those Coeur d'Alene reporters and editors to stop the pollution.

During the early 1900s, dumping of mining waste into the waters of the Coeur d'Alene sparked opposition to the immensely powerful Mine Operators Association (MOA). As the mining waste flowed downstream onto the rich bottomlands of the Coeur d'Alene River valley, farmers and ranchers saw their children sicken, their livestock die, and their crops fail. Farmers took the first real steps to stop the mining companies from polluting the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene watershed.

In 1904 sixty-five Kootenai County farmers filed two court actions against the mining companies. During seven years of litigation, the MOA hired "operatives" to infiltrate the Coeur d'Alene's farming communities and gather information on the farmers' strategies, farmers' income, and opportunities to adjust claims and settle with willing farmers. The farmers eventually "won" a case in 1910: they were awarded one dollar by a jury in Moscow, Idaho.

Many farmers sold or granted "pollution easements" to the mining companies. Buying the right to pollute through "pollution easements" became the policy of Coeur d'Alene mining companies and persisted into the 1950s. By 1930 the U.S. Bureau of Mines estimated that 11,515 acres of land had been indentured through easements bought by mining companies for the purpose of depositing tailings. Most were in Kootenai County.

In 1917 Bunker Hill began a coal fired smelter, and began purchasing "smoke easements" from ranchers in Shoshone County, following the example of Anaconda Copper Company in Montana. Smelter fumes contained lead and sulfur dioxide which formed sulfuric acid when exposed to water. The smoke damaged vegetation, killed trees, and allegedly killed livestock. By 1931 a Bunker Hill engineer estimated that 300 pounds of lead went up the smoke stack daily. By 1940 "smoke easements" on private land covered 6000 acres.

Advances in mining and milling technology increased production and profits, and also sometimes increased pollution. In 1912 the mining companies began using "floatation," in which finely ground material is mixed with water and a floatation material. Minerals could then be extracted from the froth. Production increased, and so did tailings, finer slimes, and water pollution. By 1914 the Army Corp of Engineers reported shoaling of the Coeur d'Alene river channel by tailings, and also noted a milky material suspended in the water. Over the years, river depths became shallow.

In 1919 mining companies rejected the option of "settlement" basins to collect contaminated sediments. Jacob Polack, owner of 320 acres near Cataldo, filed a lawsuit, charging that river bed had been dramatically altered by tailings deposits, which caused further flooding. Bunker Hill was found responsible, and the court accepted the charge that the mining companies should attempt to reduce the tailings problem by constructing a series of tailings ponds. The mining companies rejected this, but Judge Dietrich countered, "it follows that the problem is one of financial economy and not physical impossibility."

Mining waste flowing down the Coeur d'Alene River and washing onto the beaches of Lake Coeur d'Alene prompted growing concern about the future of one of the world's most beautiful lakes -- and the future of the region's clean water-dependent recreation and tourist economies.

"Valley of Death," was published in 1929-1930 against this historic backdrop of massive mining pollution in an extremely beautiful and biologically rich watershed. City editor John Coe described the Coeur d'Alene River Valley: "A picture of desolation. It is a veritable 'Valley of Death' in a "Paradise Lost.'" Editor H.F. Kretchman, speaking to the Izaak Walton League in 1930, warned that unless the dumping was stopped, then Lake Coeur d'Alene would become a "replica of the mother stream which now pours day by day its slimy waters into this God-given settling tank."

The Coeur d'Alene Press, pointing to successful settling ponds used in British Columbia required under Canadian Law, campaigned for the construction of settling ponds to save the Coeur d'Alene River and Lake. The Coeur d'Alene Press's campaign was embraced by the local Republican Party in the election of 1930. Ultimately the mining companies quit dumping -- in 1968, not 1930.

Today, Speaker Foley and Rep. Larry LaRocco, who together represent the people who live in the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene basin, have publicly committed themselves to the massive undertaking of cleaning-up and protecting this watershed. More than Foley and LaRocco, cleaning-up the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene watershed will require a major commitment from a nation and both impacted states -- Washington and Idaho -- that for a century benefitted from the richest silver mines on earth and that now face a very unpleasant aftermath: one of the worst cases of heavy metal pollution on earth.