For those who view it as a four-story monument to corporate greed, the destruction of the Bunker Hill lead smelter baghouse might be cause for rejoicing.
The building was the source of lead contamination that poisoned the Silver Valley two decades ago.
But when the red brick walls started tumbling down Monday, longtime Bunker Hill foreman Rich Nearing spoke nostalgically of lost jobs. Like many other Silver Valley residents, he sees cleanup of the refinery complex as a chance to lure new industry.
“It’s got to happen, but it’s sad,” Nearing said of the demolition under way on the hillside above Interstate 90. “When it shut down, there were 2,200 people working here.”
That was in 1981. Nearing had been at Bunker Hill for 26 years. He has stayed on doing maintenance, waiting impatiently for the federal government to stop studying the Superfund site and start cleaning it up.
Demolition at the smelter complex began this winter. On Monday, Nearing was among 26 people working to dismantle the zinc and lead smelters.
Mild weather and a good work force mean that 60 or 70 structures could come down by summer. That’s twice as many as originally planned, said project manager Earl Liverman of the Environmental Protection Agency.
He sees the baghouse demolition as a milestone in the cleanup effort.
The building has been there since the plant opened in 1917, according to former Bunker Hill publicist Ray Chapman. It contained filters that trapped lead dust and kept it from polluting the air.
The filters were wool bags that hung like rows of windsocks, each 30 feet high and 18 inches in diameter. There were 12,000 bags. In 1973, 2,800 were destroyed by a fire.
But lead prices were high at the time. Gulf Resources & Chemical Corp. continued to operate the smelter at full production despite the partially disabled filtering system.
Over the next year, 30 tons of lead per square mile was deposited on nearby Silver Valley communities. Doctors found 197 children with dangerously elevated blood-lead levels - the highest levels ever recorded in the United States.
Although he wasn’t in on the decision to keep operating, Chapman said, “I don’t think management ever had an inkling of the problem. Maybe they should have.”
Still, Chapman believes the public has never appreciated the efforts the now-defunct Gulf Resources made to buy up homes in the area, provide clean dirt for contaminated yards, and cooperate with health studies.
A lawsuit was filed in 1977, and an $8.8 million settlement was accepted in October 1981 by families of poisoned children.
That December, with metals prices down and environmental costs rising, the smelter closed.
Now, Shoshone County people look forward to the day that the smelter site is safe enough to be used by other industries.
The baghouse destruction, which will be completed this week, is a challenging part of the cleanup. First, lead dust had to be removed from inside the building.
As demolition began Monday, Liverman was glad for the rainy weather. The drizzle would help reduce polluted dust that could rise into the air as roof and walls tumbled.
The site was also sprayed with water. Ditches were built to capture any runoff. Air monitors were installed to watch for elevated lead levels at the smelter site and in nearby towns.
Workers are salvaging memorabilia, such as the “Lead Smelter” sign. But no buildings will be left behind for historic reasons, Liverman told onlookers Monday.
“In the next year and a half, everything you see here will be gone.”
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