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Silver Valley Residents Ambivalent About Lead-Related Health Concerns

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Idaho Panhandle Health District
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The people in north Idaho’s Silver Valley have undergone a gradual change in the way they’ve reacted to the massive cleanup program that was thrust upon them by the federal government in the 1980s. They’ve gone from ‘hell no’ to ‘maybe this isn’t so bad’. As part of that evolution, there’s some ambivalence about how they view the current state of human health in the valley.

Barbara Miller has the underdog mentality that many in the Silver Valley have adopted.

“We may be poor. We may be leaded. We may be under the eight ball, but we’re continuing with programs and resources and we need help,” Miller said.

Miller has fought a years-long battle with the Environmental Protection Agency to create a community lead health clinic in Kellogg. She has asked the agency to divert money, as much as $100 million, from the more than half a billion paid by two mining companies to settle their pollution liabilities in the valley. No dice, says the agency. By federal law, officials say, that money can only go for cleanup.

Miller says she has tried to play nice and work the right channels, but it’s clear she feels she’s been treated badly by the agency.

“What do they do? They come back and use profanity. They tell us we don’t know what we’re talking about. They lie through the channels,” Miller said.

Miller’s feelings about the EPA not that different than those expressed by then-Governor Dirk Kempthorne during his “State of the State” address in 2002.

“I told EPA that I am so frustrated with them that I’m on the verge of inviting them to leave the state of Idaho,” Kempthorne said to applause.

He went on to make clear that, in his mind, there was no public health emergency in the state. By that time, things had improved in the valley. The sky was blue more often and trees had returned to the hills above.

But Cass Davis says people were suffering. He grew up there in the late 1960s and early '70s in the shadow of the smelter where his father worked. Davis recalls spending most of his childhood outside in the dirt.

“Me and my brother then, our teenage years, our younger adolescent years, we were riding motorcycles. And one of our favorite places to ride was up Pine Creek on these clay flats. They weren’t clay flats. They were mine tailings,” he said.

To this day, Davis blames his exposure to heavy metals for his neurological problems. That includes his inability to concentrate and hold jobs.

“What I can do is labor. But what I can’t do is keep track of a crew’s hours. I can’t do a lot of different things that are considered white-collar work,” Davis said.

Now as he ages, that labor has caught up with him. His body is breaking down and he hurts. He has applied for disability payments, but says the government hasn’t approved his claim yet. He says his brother has his own health issues. Conversely, their sister, who Davis says spent most of her time inside, escaped health problems and went off to college and a career.

Davis says stories like that are common in the valley.

HIs opinion and that of Barbara Miller and that of then-Governor Kempthorne are at one end of the spectrum.

Stephen Lester is slightly more sympathetic to the agency.

“I mean, it is an enormous site. Lead is everywhere," Lester said. "There is no simple answer to how you deal with that, other than just moving people out of the area and having them not having to deal with a lifetime of lead exposures.”

Lester is from the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. He was one of the consulting scientists brought to the valley over the years by the Silver Valley Community Resource Center.

“The regional EPA has really, I think, tried to approach this is in as practical a way as it can, but yet, at the same time, that has not been very effective from a public health point of view,” he said.

The EPA might disagree. Though the agency didn’t make anyone available for interviews for this story, last spring, Bill Adams listed the agency’s accomplishments in the valley. Until recently Adams led the federal cleanup in the Coeur d’Alene Basin.

“Roads have been paved and we’ve remediated over seven thousand properties. We’ve seen the result of that from blood leads that were up to 60 micrograms per deciliter down to an average of one-point-five," Adams said. "So, significant improvements in not only the appearance of the community, but also the health of the children and the community members.”

The agency acknowledges there are still human health challenges, particularly in the lower basin, where hundreds of tons of metals-laden sediment have washed downstream and settled in fields and beaches. Ed Moreen from EPA led a group on a tour of some of those areas in August and talked with us afterward.

“We have taken some actions to protect people’s health, such as hardening boat ramps in places where people recreate. That’s a key component. We have educational signage out there. We have brochures available that help people understand how they can play clean,” Moreen said.

The Panhandle Health District offers free lead health screening with an emphasis on testing young children and it has other programs as well. For example, interested homeowners can have crews come in and check their dust indoors to see if it’s high in heavy metals.

One interesting note about this is that the district’s programs are well received in some areas and not in others. Andy Helkey, the director of the district's lead intervention program,  says in Kellogg, in the central cleanup area known as The Box, it has taken a $30 payment from the state of Idaho to get parents’ attention.

“When we were not offering the incentive in The Box, we were getting four-to-six children a year during that annual screening," Helkey said. "Now we’re seeing 150 plus.”

That reluctance to have children tested fits into the ethos of the valley, where many people have resisted the notion that something might be wrong.

“For every person I’ve spoken to that says they were messed up when they were a kid because of the lead and all that, I’ll bet you I’ll have five people tell me that why are you worried about that," said Terry Harwood, executive director of the Basin Environmental Improvement Project Commission. That's the local agency working with EPA to direct the cleanup.

"We’ve got smart people from the Silver Valley and they went to college and they’re successful individuals and have businesses and all that kind of stuff,” he said.

That doesn’t mean all is rosy. As EPA begins devoting more resources to the pollution in the lower basin, Harwood says the problem is getting people to pay attention.

“On West Mission Flats, where there’s about 25 or 30 feet of mine waste that was pumped out there from the 1930s to 1968, you’ve got people riding around on motorcycles and four-wheelers right under the sign that warns them not to ride their motorcycles and four-wheelers on the stuff," Harwood said. "Sometimes people don’t even pay any attention to the warnings.”

So there it is, from outrage to apathy, the range of views on the current state of human health in the Silver Valley.

Cass Davis, the native whom we met earlier, says most people would rather stay quiet and suffer. He says he can’t.

“I’d like to see easy access in education for the public here, instead of a whole bunch of people running around saying, ooh shush shush, we can’t stigmatize, we can’t stigmatize," Davis said. "We need to fess up to the fact that we’ve been lead poisoned. We need to start dealing with it and we need to start treating people.”