It’s not as explosive as collapsing smokestacks, but this summer’s efforts to clean up the Bunker Hill Superfund Site are no less dramatic.
“This is by far the busiest I’ve ever seen the Valley in remediation,” said Tony Chavez, a consulting engineer who’s overseeing private cleanup operations at the Superfund Site.
After years of delay, the Silver Valley is rumbling with machinery this summer as the cleanup of the defunct mining site reaches its peak.
Debris from the old lead smelter and smokestacks rests in a mass grave where the smelter once stood, as bulldozers bury it in contaminated dirt, layer by layer.
Workers haul a toxic slop of gray arsenic-laced flue dust into a lined pit.
Union Pacific Railroad is digging up its grade, removing dirt contaminated by decades of spills from ore-carrying trains.
A massive landscaping job is under way in Kellogg’s northern neighborhoods as a couple of hundred lawns get a new foot of top soil.
But most noticeable to passers-by on Interstate 90 is the construction of a new road for hauling mine tailings from the Smelterville Flats to the old Bunker Hill tailings pond that’s now the central impoundment area.
In two years, cleanup officials hope, workers will be able to cover the impoundment area with an impermeable plastic liner, topped with soil, grass and bushes. The haul road will be dismantled, and the smelter and zinc plant graves will be capped and planted.
Eventually, much of the site will be available for future development after the EPA turns it over to the state - certified “clean.”
The cleanup is about a third done, and by fall ‘99, the major work should be completed, said Mike Mahoney, project manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is supervising the project for the Environmental Protection Agency.
The cleanup didn’t begin until 1994, when it was turned over to the government with the bankruptcy of Gulf USA Corp., the previous owner of Bunker Hill.
Cleanup began with the replacement of residential yards in Smelterville and the demolition of the old smelter and related buildings. Last summer, demolition experts blasted the landmark smokestacks and an old zinc plant.
On the scarred hillsides above the smelter site, a trace of green hints that life is taking hold on the once-barren landscape.
“I look up there and see that green, and I remember two years ago when there was no green at all,” Mahoney said. “When we first got here, it was so eerie. There were no birds or anything living.”
Now crows, robins and even some trophy-size elk have been spotted on site. An old gypsum pond now is a park-like patch of grass in the midst of an industrial ground zero.
A major replanting of the hillsides will begin after the current phase of the cleanup - the removal of an estimated 1.5 million cubic yards of contaminated dirt in the Smelterville Flats.
“This whole area is a floodplain and these are high-level lead tailings, and it’s all going into the Coeur d’Alene River,” Mahoney said on a tour of the flats.
As he drove down the new haul road, an oversized Komatsu dump truck - with tires towering over Mahoney’s agency Suburban - trundled past, carrying several tons of dirt from the flats up to the impoundment area.
The road isn’t half done yet, but the Corps is using every inch of it they can to move dirt.
Eventually, the road will follow UP’s railroad grade under I-90, and double-back along the Coeur d’Alene River to the airport, where the bulk of the tailings lie. Putting a road between the freeway and river bank is a major undertaking, but without the road, the giant dump trucks would have to take public roadways.
“We were concerned that over a two-year period, we’d have a serious accident if not a fatality” without the haul road, Mahoney said.
About 85 people are working on Corps-directed projects, another 80 people are working on yard remediation and more than a dozen are working on the railroad.
The unemployment rate in the Silver Valley was down to 9.3 percent in June, the lowest it’s been since Bunker Hill was open in the ‘70s. In 1991, the Valley’s unemployment rate was 17.1 percent.
“It’s hard to find people to work,” Chavez said. “There’s competition for qualified people.”
Chuck Moss, the state’s Superfund project manager in Boise, said the cleanup plan deliberately spread the work out over several years to avoid a boom-and-bust economy. Once the work is done, the state will sell the land based on what will provide the most jobs, he said.
The cleanup is estimated to cost $126 million for the government’s share of the work, and another $41 million for the work done by the Upstream Mining Group and other private parties.
While federal funding for the project has been adequate thus far, “we’re working on a year-to-year basis,” said Shawn Sheldrake, EPA project manager.
The Superfund law has expired, and negotiations now taking place in Congress could affect the future pace of cleanup, he said.
“We’re hoping we can continue the fastest, most efficient way possible,” he said. “I can’t forward any guarantee. There isn’t one.”
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