Moon Creek’s east fork was once a nasty little stream. As it flowed past Israel Provo’s pasture, the orange-tinted water left rusty stains on the rocks.
As a kid, Provo couldn’t play in the creek. Less than a mile upstream, the defunct Silver Crescent Mine and milling operation leached lead, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals in the creek.
A $2.5 million cleanup and restoration project has transformed Moon Creek’s east fork, which meanders through Moon Gulch near Kellogg.
“Now, it’s incredibly clear. There’s lots of small fish coming in; some of them are native cutthroat trout,” said Harry Sommers, Provo’s dad, who lives nearby.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing a controversial, $1.3 billion plan to expand Superfund activity in the Coeur d’Alene River basin. The agency points to Moon Creek’s restoration as an example of what additional cleanup could accomplish over the next 50 to 100 years.
The upper basin contains more than 300 old mine and mill sites. Metals from the old workings stunt fish populations in 66 miles of the Coeur d’Alene River and its tributaries.
Cleaning up those sites would improve water quality in the Coeur d’Alene basin, making the area safer for people and wildlife, said Bill Adams, an EPA project manager.
Moon Creek’s east fork is actually on land managed by the Forest Service, which spent $2 million on remediation work. Another $500,000 went into habitat restoration.
The Silver Crescent Mine started up in the early 1900s, before pollution laws existed. A milling operation at the site generated roughly 13,000 dump truck loads of mine tailings and waste rock.
To halt the leaching of metals into the creek, Forest Service contractors moved the tailings and waste rock into an onsite repository. A clay cap prevents water from percolating through the rocks. Today, the repository blends into the nearby hillside, camouflaged by the grass and shrubs growing on top.
The work spanned a decade, finishing up in 2008. Jeff Johnson, project manager for the Moon Creek work, said extensive monitoring confirms dramatic improvements in water quality.
“Landowners used to call the district ranger and say, ‘Hey, our stream is orange. It’s running metals.’ It was a bad situation,” Johnson said. “There were no fish and very few invertebrates, such as stone flies. It was sterile. … It was ugly, too.”
Now, cutthroat trout spawn in the creek and a long-toed salamander was recently spotted nearby. Manmade ponds help replenish nearby wetland areas and provide watering spots for moose and elk.
Return of creekside vegetation keeps water temperatures at 50 to 60 degrees during the summer, which is ideal for cutthroat.
Moon Creek’s restoration is a sharp contrast to the barren east fork of Nine Mile Creek, which shows the scars of past mining activity. At the old Success Mine, a 150-foot tall tailings pile leaches 200 pounds of zinc into the creek daily. Zinc, though not harmful to humans, is toxic to fish, said EPA’s Adams.
The old workings also generate nearly 90 percent of the lead load in the east fork of Nine Mile creek. Water flowing out of the old mine’s portal is so polluted that EPA wants to pipe it to Kellogg for treatment.
But EPA’s cleanup plans – outlined in a 2,200-page document released this summer – remain highly controversial. The plan faced skeptical and largely hostile audiences during hearings in Shoshone County last month.
Community leaders said they didn’t want a Superfund stigma hanging over Shoshone County for decades to come. Others questioned whether the pollution posed real risks to human health. They said the worst of the pollution was addressed when EPA and the state of Idaho removed contaminated soil from local residents’ yards, which lowered children’s risk of lead exposure.
EPA is taking public comment on the cleanup plan through Nov. 24. A decision on the scope of the upper basin cleanup is expected in March.
Provo and Sommers said they’re thrilled with the Moon Creek restoration. They support additional cleanup in the upper Coeur d’Alene River basin. Their ancestors homesteaded the Moon Gulch property in the 1880s, where Provo is raising his son today.
Moon Gulch a scenic valley, thickly wooded. But until recently, Provo and Sommers cautioned ATV riders about recreating on the Forest Service land to the north because of pollution from the Silver Crescent.
“There’s no question that mine tailings are harmful to the environment,” Provo said.
The government spent a lot of money to clean up Moon Creek, he added.
“We think it was worth it,” Sommers said.