Behind Ike Gray’s house is a green hillside. In front is a wasteland of red rock and black stumps, with a stream dribbling through.
Ask him how he came to live near Canyon Creek, and Gray’s mind rewinds to the job he needed 60 autumns ago. He was a young man from Deer Park with a bride to support.
“She had her eye on me for a couple of years. I hadn’t given her a thought,” Gray said. “Well, one thing led to another …”
Long before Gray arrived to muck rock at the Star Mine, one thing had been leading to another along Canyon Creek.
Starting in 1878, wealth poured from more than 30 silver and lead mines and nine major mills in the steep canyon upstream. Because of the crude methods of the day, mining wastes also poured into the Coeur d’Alene River system.
That’s why, at age 86, widower Gray looks out his living room window at the Canyon Creek Tailings Removal and Stream Stabilization project.
It’s the biggest cleanup of mining wastes to occur in the Silver Valley, outside of the federal Superfund project at the defunct Bunker Hill mine and smelter complex in Kellogg.
The work, just north of Wallace, started in mid-August. It will last for three years and cost $3 million.
Early-day mines used the Canyon Creek flats as a dumping ground for the rock that was left over when valuable metals were extracted from ore. Sometimes, floods simply washed tailings from the piles that teetered upstream.
These 2.5 miles of stream, this 100 acres of floodplain, contribute more than a third of the metals washing into the river.
When water runs high and fast in the spring, scientists estimate, 869 pounds of potentially toxic metals leave here each day. The lead, zinc, cadmium and other metals collect on the bottom and banks of the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene, the main river and, ultimately, on the bottom of Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Zinc - which dissolves in water, so is especially dangerous to fish - is a big problem here. Early in the century it was considered a useless metal. Smelters penalized mines for sending ore that contained it, explained Bob Rice, who’s running heavy equipment for the Canyon Creek project.
Rice started his mining career working for a mill that reprocessed the Canyon Creek tailings, gleaning the discarded zinc when it became valuable during the war years for bullets and galvanizing.
Rice said he’s glad to be part of the restoration effort. His son, Ron, supervises an eight-man crew.
They’ll move some 50,000 dump truck loads of rock and dirt away from the streambed. It will go into two 7-acre depositories.
One is a borrow pit on the east side, a few hundred feet from the well-worn steps of Ike Gray’s house. When work is finished, the pit will look like a knoll.
The other repository is one of six tailings ponds that now line the west streambank.
Getting metals away from the stream and the shallow ground water is the main purpose of the Canyon Creek project.
There are other goals.
With blueprints and bulldozers, workers will try to recreate the stream’s natural twists and turns. That should stabilize the banks. If planted willows and alder take hold in what is now a wasteland of rock, insects might come back.
“I don’t think there’s been a fish in there for 90 years,” said Gray, whose mining buddies would never have bothered to look for a trout in “Sugar Creek.”
“They call it Sugar Creek because the other word for it is not so nice.”The cruder description is not inaccurate. Leaking septic tanks and pipes carrying raw sewage into the creek serve residents of Burke, a town pinched between the mountains in the upper canyon. Because of the potential for disease, laborers on the cleanup project were immunized against hepatitis and typhoid.
Gray isn’t sure Canyon Creek is worth the time and money going into it. But his neighbor, longtime miner Cliff Hinsz, is pleased about the project.
Getting the metals out of Canyon Creek will keep them from flushing downstream, Hinsz said.
“They’ll never be able to clean the lower end up - the main river, the lake - if they don’t get the top cleaned up.”
That was the thinking that prompted the Silver Valley Natural Resource Trustees to spend $2.4 million here. The money is part of the $4.5 million that Idaho accepted in 1986 as settlement from mining companies for environmental damage.
The state kicked in another $210,000 for Canyon Creek. There’s also a $50,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant; $62,000 from Union Pacific Railroad, which has a right of way along the stream; and $390,000 from Hecla Mining Co. of Coeur d’Alene.
Hecla and the federal Bureau of Land Management own most of the land involved.
One thing Hinsz regrets about the cleanup project is that workers won’t remove the tall, ugly cedar stumps that dot the barren flood plain. Stumps were also left along Nine Mile Creek, where a smaller cleanup was just completed.
“I don’t like the looks of Nine Mile,” Hinsz said. “There’s old stumps, logs laying around, big piles of rock. For a flood plain, it just doesn’t look natural.”
The stumps apparently were left after tailings smothered the bottoms of trees, and people cut off the valuable trunks. Project manager Marti Calabretta defends leaving them; vegetation often takes root in or near those stumps.
“You’ve got one over there,” she said, pointing to a tiny pine growing out of a stump. “We don’t want barren pasture with lots of rock on it.”
Calabretta has heard much bigger complaints than those about stumps.
Some of the 10 adjacent homeowners have refused so far to sign agreements that would allow workers to remove contaminated rock and soil from their property.
“They would like a document that releases them of all future liability, just like Hecla would like,” Calabretta said. “The EPA just doesn’t give that.”
Rock Seal is one of the home-owners who hasn’t signed the agreement, and is consulting a lawyer.
Seal grew up on the property. He played on those mine tailings and rode horses there. While some other residents never let children play along the stream, Seal said no one ever warned his family of health dangers.
“All three of my kids and my wife are lead-poisoned,” Seal said, referring to recent blood tests that showed elevated levels of the metal.
As he spoke, 3-year-old Rachel trooped across the back yard, which will be replaced with clean dirt if her parents agree. Earth-moving machines loomed in the distance, beyond her bobbing blonde head.
Seal isn’t convinced the tailings depositories are safe, and just won’t wash into the river.
“It needs to be cleaned up. But how they’re doing it is wrong. … This is all experimental. They don’t know if it’ll work.”
The repositories are well-engineered and safe, according to Geoff Harvey of the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality.
“We don’t build repositories lightly,” he said. “Hecla, who is taking possession of the (hillside) repository once it’s completed, is making darned good and sure it’s stable.”
Roadside signs marking the site list six participating agencies and businesses. The cleanup comes in the midst of heated debate and lawsuits over cleanup of the river basin and who should pay for it.
Calabretta praises the cooperation shown at Canyon and Nine Mile creeks.
“It takes a lot of patience,” says Matt Fein, a Hecla mining engineer involved with both projects. “We’re all trying to be sensitive to everyone.”
Project leaders know they can’t make everyone happy. That’s especially true of residents who are torn between concern about their health and their need to defend a familiar landscape and a lifeblood industry.
Ike Gray tells a classic tale about mixed emotions and Canyon Creek.
“In the spring of ‘33, they had the damnedest flood they ever had in here. The old guy who owned this place woke up that morning and it was covered with muck.
“He said he was the maddest son-of-a-gun in Shoshone County.”
The tailings muck contained lots of zinc. When it became valuable, the landowner raked in $40,000.
As Gray remembered it, that son-of-a-gun told the story with a smile.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos Graphic: Map of Canyon Creek project