Legacy Of Lead Some Say Fears Of Contamination Are Exaggerated

Some people say worry about lead contamination in the Silver Valley is greatly exaggerated.

“They say you can’t get a garden to grow. Sure you can,” says Pinehurst resident Craig Durkir, 30. “They say there’s no fish in the South Fork; it’s loaded with fish. I’ve been exposed to a lot of metals and as far as I’m concerned, lead hasn’t bothered me a bit.”

This skepticism about lead contamination is rooted in fierce loyalty to the old Bunker Hill Co., and the absence of profound health defects among residents. Many people also view the presence of lead as the price of prosperity enjoyed in the 1970s.

“Some people nowadays have unrealistic expectations - they’re used to zero risk. It’s part of American culture,” says Keith Dahlberg, a retired Kellogg doctor. “Once someone publicizes the risk, many people think, ‘That’s terrible,’ without comparing it with risks you accept every day.”

Rich Laws considers a life with lead no riskier than city dwellers facing the daily threat of crime.

The Smelterville retiree raised three daughters a quarter-mile from the lead smelter. Each attended the now-closed Silver King School - “the dustiest place in the valley.” One daughter became a valedictorian. All are healthy.

Laws remembers times when so much lead dust coated his pickup that “it’d look just like it’d snowed.”

He still lives at the center of the 21-square-mile Superfund site and considers much of the cleanup a waste.

In 1994, crews ripped out his lead-contaminated yard and replaced it with rocky soil hauled in from Kootenai County. It ruined his wife’s garden.

In 44 years, Laws never considered moving.

“I’ll be 78 years old in June and I’m in what you might call pretty good shape,” he says, chuckling. “Seven years ago I came down with asthma, but I don’t blame that on the lead.”

While a recent federal study found health damage from massive lead poisoning in the 1970s, many residents point to anecdotal evidence disputing there has ever been a crisis.

The Smelterville elementary school was one of the most lead-filled buildings in the valley. Yet the students were the state champions in presidential fitness tests in 1976.

The community argued over whether to close the school in the mid-70s. It didn’t close until after the school district shrunk with Bunker Hill’s shutdown.

Kellogg High School consistently wins basketball tournaments and sends kids to college.

And a disputed 1975 health study of the region’s most heavily poisoned children showed no “permanent clinical impairment or illness.”

But the fact that Bunker Hill’s smelter was the source of much of the lead may be the biggest reason some people downplay worries over pollution.

“It was an excellent place to work,” Laws says. “I spent 25 of the best years of my life there.”

Retired Silverton miner Bob Rice admits the smelter caused pollution, but says, “I don’t think there’s ever been a case of lead poisoning in the mines.”

Once the backbone of Idaho mining, Bunker Hill employed 2,100 people in 1980 and served as a sort of godfather to the Silver Valley for decades. The company gave employees home loans and offered scholarships to workers’ kids.

Jackass Ski Bowl, which later became Silver Mountain, started with a free long-term land lease from Bunker. The company paid $1.5 million annually in local taxes.

In its 1970s heyday, mining in Shoshone County accounted for 7,500 jobs and pushed countywide property values to $1.3 billion. By the late 1980s, mining jobs had plummeted to about 500 and property values hovered at $500 million.

Some residents blame the lead poisoning on parents who let their children live in filthy homes, play in leaded streams, ride bicycles on tailings piles and eat dirt.

Some blame the lawsuits against Bunker Hill’s parent company over lead contamination for contributing to the mine’s closure in 1981.

“In a way they were entitled to sue and win, but it was really hard on the Bunker Hill workers,” says Donna Gilman of Pinehurst. “It’s part of the reason they went bankrupt and a lot of retirees lost their pensions.”

Today, few people deny that heavy metals coat the valley. At issue is who’s at fault and what harm it’s caused.

“The lead in this valley’s not the miners’ fault,” says John Lang of Pine Creek. “It’s a drop in the bucket compared to what Mother Nature’s been putting in them creeks since the world was born.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos Graphic: Blood lead levels

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Craig Welch Staff writer Staff writer Susan Drumheller contributed to this report.

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