Towers Gone, But Cleanup Continues

When Cataldo resident Jeannie Smith helped pass out information recently about the demolition of the Bunker Hill smokestacks, she added her own words at the bottom of the leaflet.

“This is the beginning of the end. It’s not the end,” she wrote.

“I’m afraid people are going to think that it’s the end of the cleanup, that it’s the final touch,” Smith said of the stacks’ demolition on Sunday. “That would be really sad if that happened.”

In fact, the cleanup of the Bunker Hill Superfund site still has many years to go. No one knows exactly how long it will take, nor whether the money always will be there to finish it.

The total estimated cost to clean up the hazardous mining waste and replant the hillsides is about $185 million, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

So far about $35 million has been spent tearing down buildings, planting trees, removing contaminated soil from yards and other cleanup work.

Once the dust settles and the stacks are buried and out of sight, the work won’t stop, vowed EPA spokeswoman Krista Rave.

“This is a top priority for us,” she said.

As long as federal funding continues, the EPA will continue with its schedule to finish the demolition, replace 200 residential yards a year with clean soil, remove the tailings from Smelterville Flats, control hillside erosion, plant millions of trees, then bury and contain the waste in an on-site landfill.

Continued funding depends on Congress, however. The Superfund law is up for reauthorization. The Panhandle Health District also plans to continue programs that include monitoring lead levels in residents’ blood. Now 18 percent of the Silver Valley’s children have an increased risk of health problems from lead levels in their blood.

“I’ve been at this so long, it’s (the demolition) just another mile-marker in the road,” said Jerry Cobb, who supervises the PHD programs. “It’s not over by a long shot.”

The pollution also extends well beyond the 21-square-mile Superfund site. But no certain mechanism for cleanup exists outside that square.

Sunday’s keynote speaker at the smokestack demolition, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, has introduced a bill to provide some federal funding for basin cleanup. The bill calls for a state committee to develop an action plan for the cleanup.

Under the bill, mining companies blamed for creating some of the mess at Bunker Hill would be released from liability once they meet their cleanup obligations as determined by the action plan.

Some residents and environmentalists see the proposed law as flawed because it lacks standards for cleanup and a guaranteed funding mechanism.

On the other end of the spectrum, others don’t want their tax dollars spent on cleanup and believe nature will do the work. Mining representatives have supported the bill, given the fact that the existing mining companies are only responsible for a portion of the 100-year pollution problem in the basin.

All opinions are represented on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Coeur d’Alene Basin Project, which is working on cleanup solutions.

The chairman of the committee, Mike Schlepp, doesn’t think the cleanup will slow down or stop as a result of the disappearing stacks.

“I hope that we’ve gone around that corner and that now people realize that there is a problem in the Valley.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.

Cut in the Spokane edition.

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