When Barbara Kitchen used to drive up Burke Canyon, she never thought twice about the barren, rocky valley floor peppered with ugly black stumps.
“That’s just how it’s always been,” she said.
But that’s all changing under a cooperative cleanup effort involving local, state and federal agencies and Hecla Mining Co.
On Monday, Kitchen looked out a pickup window to watch dinosaur-sized equipment haul away tons of mining waste. Upstream, a backhoe gingerly rearranged rocks and logs on the banks of new and improved Canyon Creek.
The scene is chaotic - upended trees, jumbles of rocks and mud - but in a few years, Kitchen anticipates, green grass and thousands of leafy trees will line the meandering creek.
“We’re going to have fish again in this creek - that’s the bottom line,” she said.
Kitchen keeps count of the hours and materials involved in the cleanup for the Silver Valley Natural Resource Trustees, which is managing the $3 million restoration effort.
The trustees oversee an almost $6 million fund initially established in 1986 when Idaho accepted a settlement from mining companies over pollution in the Coeur d’Alene Basin. A parallel federal lawsuit remains unresolved.
The cleanup involves about 50 acres of flood plain and 2.5 miles of Canyon Creek. Work started last August and is on schedule.
This winter’s flooding did not slow progress on the restoration. In fact, officials said the flooding helped deposit silt where it was needed most.
“You need to build that soil so the plants have something to hang onto,” the EPA’s Earl Liverman explained as he stood on the shoulder of the road.
Several feet below him on the flood plain, made lower by the removal of mine tailings, man and machine fine-tuned the banks of Canyon Creek’s new course.
Jack Matranga, a hydrologist, stood on the bank holding two alder saplings erect while a backhoe operator deftly swung around the steel bucket and gently deposited large rocks around the base of the trees - missing Matranga’s feet.
“Later in the day, when he starts getting mad at me, I stand a little farther back,” Matranga joked.
Matranga is designing the new streambed. Large logs and some old stumps are anchored along the shore at an angle to help hold soil in place. The new stream has natural looking bends. Downstream, he’s planning a series of wetlands.
Upstream, worker Nancy Anderson spent Monday morning spreading out bales of hay over the muddy banks. The red top hay from the Rose Lake area contains mixed grass seed that’s native to the canyon.
Project coordinator Marti Calabretta urged patience on those expecting a paradise to sprout overnight. The restoration work will take about three years, and it may take many more years before the habitat returns to its former health.
“It took it 100 years to become devoid of vegetation,” she said.
Until 30 years ago, the silver and lead mines up the canyon poured waste into Canyon Creek. Much of the heavy metal waste settled out along Canyon Creek where the canyon flattened out.
“That’s not how it’s done today,” said Matt Fein, Hecla’s coordinator for Coeur d’Alene Basin cleanup projects.
As water filters through the mine tailings, the heavy metal contamination is carried downstream into the Coeur d’Alene River.
Canyon and Ninemile creeks were identified through a scientific survey to be the largest contributors to metals pollution in the south fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, aside from the Bunker Hill Superfund site.
A similar cleanup project began up Ninemile Creek in 1994. Work continues there in an attempt to give plant life a firm hold along the restored creek.
Kitchen said she thought about Ninemile Creek during the last cold snap. When things warm up, she’s anxious to drive up there.
“I can’t wait until spring and see everything growing.”