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Wednesday, April 1, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Decadeslong Silver Valley heavy metal cleanup program winding down

When the soil around the old Rose Lake School tested high for lead, the historical society that owns the 1913 building took quick action.

Over a six-week period in 2014, contaminated soil was scraped off the property with backhoes, hauled away and replaced with clean dirt and sod.

“We have children playing here,” said Michael White, president of the Rose Lake Community Historical Society. “We didn’t want the potential liability.”

Both the soil testing and the cleanup were free to the historical society through a Superfund program to reduce childhood lead exposure in Idaho’s Silver Valley.

Over three decades, more than 7,000 homes, businesses, school playgrounds and parks have participated in the yard cleanup. The program puts a cap of clean dirt over the heavy metals released to the environment during 100-plus years of mining activity in the Silver Valley.

Now, the $340 million yard cleanup program is nearing a milestone: After 2018, Superfund managers expect the work to start tapering off.

“At this point, we believe there are 300-plus properties in the Coeur d’Alene Basin that may still qualify for sampling,” said Bruce Schuld, an Idaho Department of Environmental Quality program manager.

He’s urging the remaining property owners to get their yards tested before staffing starts winding down. After 2018, people can still get their yards cleaned up, but it may take longer to get the work done, Schuld said.

Properties where young children or pregnant woman reside will continue to be the top priority for work, he said.

Blood lead levels dropped with cleanup

Superfund managers say it’s hard to describe the magnitude of the program. Children’s blood lead levels in the Silver Valley have declined dramatically since the 1970s, when pollution controls stopped working at the Bunker Hill smelter and lead and other heavy metals spewed out of the stacks. At the time, kids living near the smelter averaged blood lead levels of 65 micrograms per deciliter, among the highest in the nation.

Even after the smelter closed in 1983, local children’s blood lead levels remained high because of the contaminated soils.

And the smelter’s plume wasn’t the only way lead spread throughout the Silver Valley. It was in mine tailings, which were dumped into streams before environmental regulations took effect, used for construction fill and spread as gravel for driveways.

Since the yard remediation began, hundreds of thousands of truckloads of polluted soil have been hauled off to repositories. And children’s blood lead levels in the Silver Valley have dropped to mirror national averages.

“That’s the success – we’ve seen those blood lead levels come down,” said Andy Helkey, the Panhandle Health District’s lead health program manager.

In some neighborhoods, the before and after numbers are stark, Helkey said. In Burke Canyon, average blood levels in children dropped from 8 to 3 micrograms per deciliter after local residents had their yards cleaned up.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there’s no safe exposure level for lead, a neurotoxin that has been linked to lower IQs and learning and behavior problems. The CDC sets blood lead levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter as a threshold of concern in children.

Tracking contaminated dirt into homes is a common pathway for lead exposure, particularly for young children who are crawling and putting their hands into their mouths.

Average yard cleanup costs $43,000

Last year, the average cost of a yard cleanup was about $43,000, which includes the cost of hauling contaminated dirt to a repository. The remediation work averaged about $2 per square foot.

Federal funds and settlements from mining companies have paid for the $340 million in costs, said Bill Adams, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program manager.

Adams said that over the years, he’s seen local skepticism about the yard cleanup replaced with gradual community support.

“When we first started, there was resistance and denial that there was any kind of a problem,” he said.

But after the first few years of yard cleanup, more people were willing to sign up for testing, he said.

“I think it’s safe to say that everyone in the community is interested in their own health and the health of their families,” said Schuld, the DEQ manager.

Getting a clean bill of health for the property is also motivating for people who expect to sell or refinance their home in the future, or leave the parcel to their children after their death, said Denna Grangaard, a DEQ spokeswoman. Banks and other lenders want information about the status of testing and cleanup.

“We have an aging population, and they want those hurdles cleared before they pass their property on to their heirs,” Grangaard said.

That was Robert Stricklan’s motivation for getting his property tested and cleaned up. The retired miner and his wife have lived on their Rose Lake property since the 1970s, and at one point, Stricklan spread a load of mine tailings around the footings for the garage and on the driveway.

“This house would be given to my daughter, and we wanted a clean bill of health on the property,” Stricklan said. “That’s the reason we jumped through the hoops.”

Part of the couple’s driveway was excavated, along with a small area behind their garage.

“The contractors did a good job,” Stricklan said. “They dug it up nice, and they didn’t tear up the rest of my yard.”

At the old Rose Lake School, the heavy metals probably came from a variety of sources, said White, the historical society president.

The 2 1/2-acre parcel is near the Coeur d’Alene River, so some of the heavy metals were probably deposited on the property during flooding. In decades past, the highway district also spread smelter slag on local roads to increase winter traction, White said.

The cleanup protects local kids who use the school’s playground equipment and play catch in the field, White said. It also benefits seniors who take part in a weekly luncheon at the two-room schoolhouse, which functions as a community center, and a small elk herd that grazes on the lawn.

“Once you’ve had the property tested and it’s shown to be positive, the onus is on you to get it cleaned up,” White said.

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