clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


Eleanor Gearhart worries that her three sons may be "leaded" even though they moved to this northern Idaho community years after the Bunker Hill Co. stopped spewing tons of the heavy metal into the air.

"They've had their blood tested," she said. "As of right now, they don't have anything that I know of."For six months beginning in October 1973, the Bunker Hill smelter discharged hundreds of tons of lead from a smokestack, poisoning scores of children in the picturesque Silver Valley.

One health consultant called it the worst such accident in the free world. The parents of nine children sued for $20 million.

In 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency declared a 21-square-mile area around the huge Bunker Hill mining and smelting complex a Superfund site.

The cleanup, estimated at more than $100 million, is scheduled for completion near the turn of the century, said John Meyer, a spokesman for the EPA in Seattle.

Jerry Cobb, director of the Panhandle Health District in nearby Silverton, said the cleanup seems slow but is progressing.

"It's kind of like watching the ice flow. If you stand there every day and look at it, it doesn't look like it's moving. But if you drive a stake in it and go away for awhile, you can see it's moving," Cobb said.

In 1974, a study of 201 children living within a mile of the smelter had unhealthy amounts of lead in their blood, Silver Valley health data show. The average was 65 micrograms per deciliter of blood. The national standard at the time was 25 micrograms.

By 1991, 49 children tested in the one-mile area had average blood-lead levels of 7 micrograms, the national average, Cobb said.

Much of the cleanup so far has been removing lead-contaminated soil from parks and playgrounds, and from the yards at more than 400 homes with pregnant mothers and young children, he said.

The resodding project could eventually be extended to more than 1,000 tainted yards.

Cleanup and reclamation activities also are under way in non-populated areas tainted with lead, arsenic, zinc and other heavy metals after a century of mining and smelting.

The goal is to get off the Superfund list and "get on with our lives. We're getting close to it," Cobb said.

Children, who are more likely to put rocks and dirt in their mouths, are most at risk for lead-poisoning, which can stunt growth and diminish intelligence.

That risk is why Gearhart sent her sons, ages 17, 9 and 6, for blood tests. She is a member of the Moms and Grandmas, a small group of Silver Valley residents, who work with the Idaho Citizens' Network for health assistance along with the environmental cleanup.

Everyone in the group has a story to tell about an illness or defect they believe is the consequence of being "leaded." For many, blood workups are an annual ritual. They want the federal government to establish a $40 million trust fund for medical treatment.

"The after-effects of the smelter are very, very frightening," said Barbara Miller, an organizer for the Idaho Citizens' Network.

It was a bag-house fire that knocked out filters in the smelter's flue and stack system in 1973. Rather than shutting down and repairing the pollution-control system, the smelter sent untreated material up the main smokestack, said Ian Von Lindern, a consultant working for the state Department of Health and Welfare in 1985.

"Honestly, folks, this is a situation that hasn't occurred anywhere else in the free world that we know of," Von Lindern said then.

In 1977, parents of nine children sued the Bunker Hill Co. for $20 million. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount in 1981.

A final plan for the overall Superfund cleanup could be finished by late summer, Meyer said.

Then, a series of owners and operators must be persuaded to sign a consent decree on who will pay the cleanup costs, he said.