The Sterile Valley's Legacy

"The worst are the racing thoughts." That's how Cass Davis describes his health problems since he was "leaded" in the early 1970s by smelter fallout from North Idaho's Bunker Hill lead mine.

I am visiting his family home in Pinehurst, Idaho, where the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is replacing the contaminated lawn in his mother's yard. He also dwelt in nearby Smelterville. He was nine in Pinehurst when the heaviest lead fallout hit. Silver Valley children, when the Centers for Disease Control tested them, had the highest blood-lead levels ever recorded in humans. Many of their offspring still live in houses where heating ducts, crawl spaces, and carpeting test high in lead.

"Racing thoughts is the way I talk about the ADHD," explains Cass. We look at the dirt in the yard. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, among a range of other maladies, makes it tough for Cass to focus -- on words, on work, even on sex. His thoughts race. "Before I know it, the erection has fallen," Cass confesses gently. For a reflective moment he is still. Then the words and thoughts rush again, and we're off to tour the valley.

Mining's Footprint

In Shoshone County, Idaho, the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River threads through the Silver Valley, once the most productive silver site on Earth. For a century mining corporations reaped sweet profits amid backwoods burgs that are struggling to stay alive today.

In the Silver Valley you can see the mining industry's footprint in the 21-mile Superfund site, second largest in the nation. You can find it in the sterile waters, damaged people, dead swans, and on the beaches of the Spokane River far away. You can hear it in the voice of Cass's mother, Corinne Davis, who recalls "going to track meets at the school and not being able to see across the track field." Some events, she said, were canceled due to heavy smelter smoke. "You would hope for a good windstorm before the track meet."

Which companies or governments should be liable for the cleanup, following more than a century of pollution, is a question several high-stakes trials are attempting to answer now. Estimates of those clean up costs range from $500 million to $3 billion. The interested parties in the trials are maligning each other, politely of course, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking hits from all sides for its management of cleanup efforts.

The bottom of Lake Coeur d'Alene harbors some 70 million tons of lead, zinc, cadmium, arsenic and more. Another 70 million tons is loose upstream. The entire watershed could be named a Superfund site, prompting cries among boosters, realtors, and chambers of commerce.

Cleaning up the Coeur d'Alene Basin -- an unprecedented task, massive, as yet impossible -- would involve more than 1,200 miles of roads, yards, rivers, creeks, flood plains, Lake Coeur d'Alene, and the Spokane River. Hoping to forestall such a job, the State of Idaho settled with some of the mining companies in 1986 for a tiny $4.5 million.

The Coeur d'Alene Indian tribe, recently awarded the lower one-third of Lake Coeur d'Alene, is suing the companies in turn. The federal government is suing ASARCO and Hecla, and ASARCO and Hecla are countersuing the fed for its alleged responsibility in promoting metals production during WWII.

Uncle Bunker's Slump

Cass Davis was one of some 600 children whom owners of the Bunker Hill smelter knowingly sacrificed to boost profits in 1973. His brother Cal, 35, leaded at a younger and more vulnerable age, suffers narcolepsy and got by on disability assistance for five years of his life. Corinne Davis, 56, Family Services Coordinator for the Head Start program in the valley, has lived in the same house since 1971. She works with Barbara Miller of the People's Action Coalition to redress the environmental and social injustices that have damaged her family and land.

The heaviest lead dust and zinc dust that fell on the Silver Valley originated in a Gulf Resources boardroom. A fire ruined the anti-pollution filters in Gulf's "baghouse" in 1973. To fix it would mean a costly delay. Handwritten notes from that time estimate the number of children -- laborers' kids, kids like Cass and Cal -- who would sicken if production were to remain on pace. The number of would-be victims was multiplied by a per-child settlement price. Then Gulf began moving salaried employees out of danger.

Gulf Resources, then-owner and operator of the Bunker Hill smelter, had a ready liability formula to compute such costs. The risk calculation came easily. Several years earlier, Gulf had been convicted of poisoning children in El Paso, Texas, and had had to cough up settlement costs.

So Gulf let its Bunker Hill smelter in Idaho blast -- without filters. Tons of lead rained down between September 1973 and April 1974. The projected cost of the poisoned kids -- calculated at some $7 million, their lives discounted via the emerging science of risk analysis -- proved worth it all after a record $26 million in profits came home to roost that year. Only one family sued, the Yosses. The Yoss children were awarded almost precisely $7 million.

In 1981, Gulf shut down its legendary smelter -- "Uncle Bunker," as most locals referred to it, Idaho's largest employer. The shutdown threw out of work some 2,200 employees and plunged the valley into a depression Cass remembers well. He got free "hot-lunch tickets," but sometimes he went hungry at noon to trade them for cash instead.

The depression stratified the valley, Cass says. The poor kids, kids whose parents were out of work, the kids most disabled by toxins and least able to fend, got ridiculed by teachers and classmates alike. Cass earned himself some punishment by "standing up for the rights of my lead-damaged friends" at Silver King Grade School in Smelterville.

Economic privation compounded illnesses and disabilities in the Silver Valley. Before folks could learn how they'd been suckered by Gulf, the corporation had stashed cash in Swiss accounts and invested in trinkets offshore -- a Scottish castle, some sunken treasure. Legally speaking, wrote Kathie Durbin in The Oregonian, Gulf's "partnership assets had been shifted through various stock and property transfers" into assets abroad.

Gulf also bilked former employees of pensions and medical benefits, a trick Charles Hurwitz later pulled on workers at Kaiser Aluminum. The poverty-pocked Silver Valley became even poorer, and Gulf ran away with the embezzled funds to become the largest commercial landowner in New Zealand. U.S. corporate laws protected that scam. So did lax oversight by the Department of Justice, and a regional EPA chief whom Idaho politicians handpicked. There is plenty of blame to go around.

Such patterns of resource extraction have been repeated across the American West for more than a century. The common theme is boom and bust, cut and run. If Gulf proved expertly mobile and evasive, it conferred mobility on the chemicals it loosed across the land. Land mines go on killing long after human conflicts end, and so the mining industry's assault on the biosphere has ecological repercussions for decades afterwards. Chemicals continue to migrate and pollute. Many of the workers migrate too.

For Curt "Blackie" Davis, the father of Cass and Cal, closure of the mill meant he would need to discover new ways to make a living -- selling firewood, working construction, now converting rail beds to trails. The Silver Valley is home. Moving away is not an option.

Blood Thicker than Water

The Davises are acquainted with uncertainty -- occupational, economic, domestic, medical and environmental -- but they have not allowed the conditions in the valley to interfere with living broad and productive lives. The twin anchor-holds, amid the uncertainty, are place and one another. A boat with only one anchor roves in the wind; two anchors hold it firm.

Chandra Gair, 37, the married daughter of Corinne Davis and her oldest child, is fortunate to have escaped the health problems that trouble her brothers. She never rode dirt-bikes in tailings piles alongside Cass and Cal. She earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Idaho and an M.A. in Spanish from the University of Northern Iowa. Now she flies the freeway weekly to teach Spanish at North Idaho College and French at Coeur d'Alene High.

She defends her decision to return to the valley and raise a family. A person should not remain too long away from family and home, no matter what challenges. As for the pollution, she draws a shrewd analogy. "You don't move out of your house when it gets dirty," she reasons. "You clean it up." Likewise, you don't vacate if you disagree with the cleanup methods of the EPA, which she believes should broaden its program to include interior remediation.

Chandra and her husband own an older home in Kellogg, where the dust in the furnace vent tested high in lead content. Finally she convinced the EPA to come in and clean the inside of their house. Still, she worries about other people's homes and the schools. She believes that many of her Silver Valley neighbors live in denial of the health hazards in their homeland.

Chandra's brother Cal, born in 1966, was the youngest in the family to bear the six-month fallout after the Bunker baghouse burned. His blood-lead levels were the highest in the family. For five years, diagnosed as narcoleptic and ADHD, he was on Social Security disability. Now he is working, no longer getting government benefits, but his mother says he will probably have to be on Ritalin for the rest of his life to stem his narcolepsy.

Cal Davis is working in Alaska as a journeyman electrician. His wife Stacie and his toddler son remain in Wallace in the valley. Stacie hopes his journeyman job works out. Cal's narcolepsy might get in the way, though, she knows, as it did in the Army when he fell asleep at attention and in chow lines. After his Army gig he was prescribed nightly "downers" to counteract the Ritalin that pumped him full of energy. Lead is known to produce "somatic problems," says Paula Lantsberger, a Spokane physician.

Cal's father Blackie coached young Golden Gloves boxers. From 1979 to 1982, Cal was Golden Gloves state champion in Idaho, Cass recalled. By 17, Cal had become an alcoholic, although he has been clean now 13 years. Maybe he was self-medicating with booze, treating himself for lead-based afflictions that had yet to be diagnosed.

Cal's brother Cass worries about himself. "I have no health insurance. I cannot afford to see a doctor, and so I can never know whether my physical or mental problems are serious, normal or related to my exposures." He thinks he is infertile, a claim the medical research supports. He also has "learning difficulties," his mother says, along with a prostate problem for 10 years. "Red meat and coffee inflames it."

But most difficult of all for Cass is the periodic impotence, a state he traces to ADHD and "racing thoughts." The most desirable woman, the most interesting book, neither can hold his attention. It pains him deeply, grieves and worries him, but above all it angers him -- the injustice, the uncertainty. Nor does his occupation, as a self-employed landscaper and pond-builder, allow him to afford the medical tests he needs to gain greater certitude.

When Cass visits Pinehurst from home in Moscow, Idaho, he notices differences in behavior he attributes to people's exposures to heavy-metal mine wastes. Most of all he notices "mental problems. "A lot of folks are just plain crazy. You can end up in a fistfight or worse at the drop of a hat." At school he got in punch-outs at least once a month. His observations about his birthplace, anecdotal though they may be, again confirm what studies have shown to be a link between lead and aggressive behavior.

This link might underscore the announcement of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that it will sue companies that manufactured lead paint. NAACP President Kweisi Mfume called exposure to lead paint "a civil rights issue." Black children, says the NAACP report, are five times more likely than white people to suffer from lead poisoning. If poverty leads to lead exposure, and lead abets crime and poor health, then lead can be said to nudge indigent people toward crimes.

Nationally recognized lead expert Dr. John Rosen, Head of the Children's Lead Program at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York, believes the U.S. threshold for blood lead -- 10 micrograms per deciliter -- is too high. Children can be damaged, he believes, at lower concentrations. Except for the narcolepsy, he confirms the health allegations the Davis brothers make.

Cass Davis holds left-of-center political beliefs. He has seen social and environmental wreckage that affects his outlook. "Shrewd business people worldwide leave a trail of polluted rivers, destroyed economies and unclean air." His time in the Silver Valley, perhaps combined with his parents' unionism, radicalized him. In 1999, Cass joined the WTO protests in Seattle, believing "Greed knows no borders." He is not a cynic or a defeatist, rather "an undisciplined idealist," one who believes social change is feasible but is too lazy to work hard for it.

Bed Loads of Lead

Everyone lives downstream or downwind from someplace. Not only is Spokane downwind from Hanford, site of atomic research since World War II, it is also downstream from the Silver Valley, which ranks among the most poisoned plots of land on the planet. Mineral extraction in Idaho set free those poisons, wind and water dynamics are spreading them far, and partisan politics are delaying the remediation.

In a three-decade flurry of concern for impacts to human health in the valley, little has been done to assess other species. Now that geologists and hydrologists are paying more attention to the migration of the metals, thanks chiefly to Dr. John Osborn and The Lands Council he founded in Spokane, some stunning numbers are being recorded. Waterfowl are the hardest hit, followed by fish. No one knows how long it will take to heal this injured watershed. Paula Lantsberger, the Spokane physician who specializes in occupational lead exposure, does not let her children swim in Lake Coeur d'Alene.

Personal testimony has a power that all the numbers in the world can't trump. Cass Davis, like a frenzied tour guide inside Hell, speaks passionately for the damaged ecosystem he loves. He hauls up river rocks and identifies iron oxide on them. He shows slumping and blown-out sidehills below failed logging roads. He wades into the Coeur d'Alene River, arms and shoulders, socks and shoes, and comes up with fistfuls of lead sludge. The worst ecological damage stems from the bed-loading, he says.

Streams and rivers have beds, and those beds can be clean or "loaded" by degrees. A badly loaded bed is clogged or suffocated by silt or sediment. The loaded stream and its creatures can't breathe. In the case of the Silver Valley stream beds, and now increasingly the upper Spokane River as well, the sediment from mining wastes not only makes the water toxic, but also clogs and strangles the stream. Fish need clean beds of gravel to dig their nests and lay eggs when they spawn. Humans need clean water too.

A first principle of ecology is that everything is connected, webbed together, by invisible strands. Accordingly, the science shows, pollution from Silver Valley mines will continue migrating in great volumes until the heavy logging and roadbuilding in the upper Coeur d'Alene watershed abates. Streambeds receive loads of sediments from roads and logged-off plots. Bare hillsides and roadways pour silted water into the river systems, water that intact forests would absorb and hold otherwise. In short, logging exacerbates mine wastes.

If there is plenty of blame to go around, the group that is evading criticism is the State of Idaho, the most conservative body of lawmakers in the nation. Idaho leaders would like the federal government to butt out of Silver Valley affairs; they say such business should devolve to states and counties, to local control. But the dynamics and magnitude of the Silver Valley mining pollution are putting that political wisdom to the test.

Consider this bit of literary biography that you can liken to Idaho's mine wastes. William Faulkner wrote fine novels that won both the Nobel and the Pulitzer Prize. A recent biographer found that Faulkner's granddaddy slept with the slaves he owned. He sired a mulatto child. He paid for her education and maintenance, but he never publicly acknowledged her.

Idaho's fame for recreational splendor is similarly earned and deserved. But the Gem State has generated abundant pollution, and its congressional leaders rank among the most anti-government and anti-environment in the nation. Like Faulkner's granddaddy, the state won't own up to its bastard children, its pollution and crimes.

Corinne Davis is an educated woman, holder of an M.A. in history from the University of Idaho. Her thesis concerned union activity in the Silver Valley. In an odd twist of fate, she speculates, she contaminated her own yard by composting leaves and spreading the compost on lawn and flowerbeds. She was only trying to do the right thing by the environment. The cottonwood leaves were leaded, though, through the roots or through dust in the wind, and now her lovely landscaping and flowers must come up.

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