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Digging For Dollars Economy May Gain From Program To Keep Bunker Hill Residents, Builders From Digging Up Metal-Tainted Soil

Barbecue pits, swimming pools, even gardens - health officials want to track every significant hole over a huge part of the Bunker Hill site.


Last week, the Panhandle Health District approved the so-called “Institutional Controls Program,” a system of regulatory carrots and sticks designed to keep residents and builders from digging up heavy metal-tainted soil.

By asking citizens to help manage the waste under their feet, health officials estimate they’ll save $120 million over the cost of digging up all the contaminated soil. And then there’s the difficult problem of where all that soil would go.

Most importantly, though, the program is expected to speed up development in the economically struggling Silver Valley. Banks, fearing future liability, are reluctant to loan money on contaminated sites.

“The community is ready to have this (cleanup) project over with. If they didn’t take this on, we’d never be done with it,” said Jerry Cobb, program coordinator for the Panhandle Health District.

He said the program, starting this spring, is the largest of its kind in the nation. The cost, $25 million over the next 60 years, will be divided between mining companies and taxpayers, with the companies paying the larger share.

Since 1986, cleanup workers have removed soil from 570 contaminated yards, playgrounds and parks throughout the 21-square-mile Superfund cleanup site, polluted with nearly a century of mining wastes.

After removing the soil, workers lay down a fabric barrier, then cap the site with 12 inches of “clean” soil and sod.

“We knew we were going to leave behind more (contaminated soil) than we took out,” said Cobb. “If you’re going to leave something behind, you’d better manage it.”

That means that soon, any Bunker Hill area resident digging a hole bigger than a cubic yard must go to the health district first to apply for a permit. A cubic yard is about a pickup-truck load.

“We talked about having a permit required if you wanted to plant a rosebush, but we didn’t want to be so invasive and restrictive,” Cobb said.

The government will take the contaminated dirt and supply clean dirt.

Once the excavation is done and the site is capped with clean soil, the district will hand over a “Record of Compliance.” That’s for the bankers, to show that the excavation work didn’t re-contaminate the site.

“Some people have public health concerns and some don’t,” Cobb said. “But everyone wants to be able to sell his house.”

Using county maps, health district workers will track all excavation work. Since the buried heavy metals are there to stay, Cobb is designing a record-keeping system for the very long term.

“Contamination below the barrier is forever, so the program’s got to be forever,” he said.

People who excavate without a permit could face misdemeanor charges under state environmental laws.

For gardens, the health district requires 2 feet of soil depth - and it’ll provide up to 11 pickup-loads of clean soil.

Smaller projects - installing fence posts or clothesline poles and planting the oft-cited rosebush - won’t require a permit.

“We’re not worried because it’s so small,” Cobb said. “Even if they bring up some contaminated materials, they’ll likely rake it up and Mother Nature will wash it through the grass.”

Still, Cobb said, the health district happily will pick up contaminated soil and provide clean soil for those small projects.

“The more they understand about our program, the more they’ll tell their friends,” he said.

Contractors and residents don’t seem too concerned about the new requirements, said Ted Slack, Pinehurst, Idaho, building inspector.

“At first, there may be a little resistance,” he said. “But when people realize it’s got to be, there won’t be a problem. I think it’s going to be pretty simple.”

In Kellogg, builder Teral Ellis said contractors already have to get a number of building permits and other documents. An excavation permit won’t be much more difficult, he said. “If everyone’s got to do it, everyone’s got to do it,” Ellis said. “I don’t think anybody wants to bang his head against a wall.”


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