Since Burke, Mullan and Wallace were settled more than a century ago, it’s been common practice for residents to unwittingly pollute their own homes.
Living in communities that revolved around the Hercules, Hummingbird, Morning and other mines, miners and their families used what was close at hand to build their homes and yards.
Flood plains were raised with dirt and waste rock from mine or mill operations. Foundations were placed on fill material that came from any nearby pile without regard for how contaminated it might be with heavy metals.
Even now some homeowners unknowingly transport polluted dirt to their homes to build a driveway, plant a garden patch or fill in a swampy area.
That activity, and the century of runoff from mine sites, may help explain the high levels of lead found in 150 yards outside the Superfund site around the Coeur d’Alene River basin.
The contamination was discovered in a 1996 survey of homes in the basin. The results of the survey were released last week.
“Yesterday, I watched four different pickups in four different locations; people were shoveling material into their pickup trucks for yard projects,” Marti Calabretta, coordinator for state-run cleanup projects in the upper basin, said last week.
“People need to be told not to do that,” she said.
Lead contamination spreads from the Idaho-Montana border to Lake Coeur d’Alene and beyond to varying degrees. But the only place where the movement of soil is carefully controlled is inside the Superfund site, which encompasses Kellogg, Smelterville, Page and Wardner.
Creeks and rivers running through the Silver Valley also move heavy metals. Of the approximately 72 million tons of tailings dumped into the waterways through 1980, about 77 percent were dumped upstream of Bunker Hill.
Now those tailings and other sources of heavy metals are regularly tramped through homes throughout the basin, as the recent study indicates.
The study, conducted by the state Division of Health with a grant from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, was the first to assess the threat of lead-poisoning outside the Superfund site.
Researchers spent last summer gathering data on 1,513 households throughout the basin, an effort that involved questionnaires, blood tests, urine tests, sampling vacuum dust, water, house paint and yard soil.
Rose Lake resident Suzanne Jude brought her results to a public meeting last week, worried about the 866 parts per million lead in a dust mat researchers put in her living room.
“We don’t have children, but we do have concerns about living here and recreating,” she said.
The amount of lead in her yard and vacuum dust was much lower than on the dust mat. Jude guessed that the mat collected so much lead because it’s where she and her husband wiped their feet after returning from visits to the Coeur d’Alene River.
“I feel a little bit more relieved now,” she said, after learning that 1,000 ppm lead is the threshold the Environmental Protection Agency uses to determine when to replace yards in the Superfund site.
Had she lived in Burke Canyon, chances are greater that Jude’s yard would have levels above the threshold.
In Burke Canyon, 46 percent of the yards exceeded 1,000 ppm. Of the dust mats left in Burke, 85 percent exceeded the threshold.
Burke resident Chuck Tirpik doesn’t know the results for his yard, because he declined to participate in the study. Everyone knows the area’s polluted, he said.
“I imagine anybody who’s drunk the water, breathed the air or caught a fish up here has been affected by lead to some extent,” he said.
“I’d like to see the study stopped and the lead health project started, instead of wasting more money on studies,” he said.
The lead health project is being pushed by the Peoples Action Coalition, a grass-roots group seeking medical help for Silver Valley residents harmed by lead and other heavy metal pollution.
State officials say the study is valuable because it’s creating a database that will help prevent lead poisoning, and help direct cleanup efforts.
“This whole thing is a process, not an event,” said Jerry Cobb of the Panhandle Health District. The district will continue to compile data in an effort to help come up with a solution, he said.
One weak link in the current study is the small number of blood samples from children. Researchers hoped to link data from blood tests to the environmental data in order to draw conclusions about what the greatest lead-poisoning risks are in the basin.
The state has $18,000 remaining from last summer’s survey to conduct blood lead screenings next week for children - but only for those families who participated in some aspect of the study last year.
“If we end up sampling a bunch of people we don’t have environmental data on, we’re not going to be able to tell them anything,” Cobb said.
That doesn’t mean this is the last chance for community-wide blood testing.
Mining companies involved in the cleanup of the basin have offered to help establish an ongoing basin-wide lead intervention program.
The idea is to positively identify the source of lead and change behaviors that contribute to lead poisoning. While that may save money over digging up every yard, mining companies also believe it will be more effective in the long run.
The companies are talking with the EPA about the proposal.
“It may be health intervention, but they might want us to do something else as well,” said Holly Houston, a mining industry spokeswoman. “A lot might depend on when ATSDR comes back with the final results” from the basin study.
A final report isn’t expected for at least six months.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: LEAD SCREENINGS Lead screenings are scheduled this week for children from 6 months old to 9 years old and for pregnant women whose families participated in last summer’s Coeur d’Alene River basin health assessment. Parents will receive $20 if they bring their children in for blood tests. The screenings are from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. today and Tuesday and 9:30 a.m. to noon at Canyon Elementary School. Starting at 2 p.m. Wednesday, the screenings will move to Silver Hills Middle School in Osburn and continue there through Friday. Appointments are not necessary.