At first, it looked like nothing had happened.
There was a burst of dust from the base of a smokestack, then … nothing. The giant concrete stack didn’t move.
Then slowly, slowly, the 4,800 tons of concrete listed. Without a sound, the stack tilted on its base, gained speed as it fell and finally slammed into the barren hillside above Smelterville.
“It’s kind of like the stacks were saying, ‘Don’t take me,”’ said Karin Shriver, a Seattle radiologist. Raised in Kellogg, she had returned to see Sunday’s demolition.
Further down the slopes, the scene was repeated three times Sunday as blasters felled four large Bunker Hill smokestacks that had been a part of the Silver Valley landscape for decades. The impact rocked the ground and raised huge clouds of dust. People cheered and honked car horns.
Two honorary blasters, directed by real blaster Anna Chong, pushed ceremonial plungers directing workers to fire the charges.
The event felt like a carnival, with rock bands and rides. Dozens of people waited in line for beer. Local groups charged gawkers $5 a carload. Others sold T-shirts (“EPA Stack Cleaning Service”) or toy hard hats.
“I thought it was cool. The big stack broke in half on the way down,” said Karl Schmitz, a Spokane machinist. “I thought it’d be louder.”
Schmitz and seven friends had arrived at the scene in a white limousine. Thousands of others - including dozens of Spokane area motorcyclists - crowded roads and parking lots in Kellogg and Smelterville. On Interstate 90, traffic was backed up two miles.
Dozens of people climbed - or drove up - the hillsides to get a better view. Savvy people abandoned the traffic jams and bicycled to viewing spots. At one viewing area, 51 restless people waited in front of two portable restrooms.
The stacks, which crumbled upon hitting the ground, will be broken up and buried where they landed.
The blasts also extinguished powerful aircraft warning lights on each stack. The strobe lights had become a part of the Silver Valley skyline, pulsing over Smelterville and Kellogg homes throughout the night. On foggy nights, the strobes looked like lightning.
A campaign last winter by some residents to save the stacks failed. Many wanted to turn them into a mining memorial or to preserve them for future industry.
Others suggested a revolving restaurant or windmills at the top. A few people suggested that the stacks could be turned into high-rise apartments.
“They couldn’t come up with any real hard-money support to assume the responsibility,” said Howard Blood of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “We decided it was probably more of a wish than something they were capable of doing.”
The felling of the stacks marks the finish - almost - of demolition work at the Bunker Hill site, contaminated by decades of mining and refining operations. The 21-square-mile site is the second-largest Superfund cleanup location in the nation.
More than 100 buildings have been demolished, with seven left at the site of the old zinc plant and phosphate fertilizer plant. That work should be finished by August. About $30 million has been spent. Of that, taxpayers have paid $13 million; mining companies have paid the rest.
After that, environmental officials plan to begin moving a lot of contaminated soil from around the zinc plant and capping it so rain won’t leach heavy metals into streams. That work should be done in 1997 or 1998, after which the EPA will give several hundred acres of the site to the state of Idaho.
Ultimately, officials hope to dig contaminated tailings and soil from Smelterville Flats and the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene, moving the pollution to an “impoundment area” away from water. Estimated cost: $50 million to $60 million. Time line: unknown.
“The real question,” said Blood, “is going to be: When can I get the money?”
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