An Interview with Bradley D. Snow – Living With Lead- An Environmental History of Idaho’s Coeur D’Alenes, 1885-2011

 

Living with Lead

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  •  g emil reutter

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Living with Lead by Bradley D. Snow is a compelling, fact filled book concerning the environmental history of the Coeur d’Alenes Valley in the state of Idaho. Bradley brings us to the initial finding of precious metals, quite by accident by a wayward donkey to corporate America’s mining of lead and silver, production of zinc and of construction of smelters and blast furnaces that dominated and destroyed the landscape of the Couer d’Alenes, to the rebirth of the environment when the famous Bunker Hill facility was finally torn down. The release of Living With Lead is timely as present day demands of deregulation of EPA rules and regulations are in open debate. The question of relaxed rules bringing back blue collar jobs is also in question as corporations only have allegiance to themselves. Living With Lead is a necessary read for those who value the environment and for those who desire to relax regulations for it is good to know why these regulations came into place and what their impact on the lives of people have been.  You can find the book here: BookDetails

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Bradley D. Snow

The Interview

GER: How long did it take from the accidental discovery of lead and silver in the Couer d’Alenes to the decline of the environment?

BDS: The galena (lead-silver) deposits were discovered in September of 1885 and area residents were reporting significant damage to their crops and livestock from mine tailings that washed down the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River and the main stem of the Coeur d’Alene River by the late 1890s. Downstream farmers also reported that by 1898 the South Fork, which formerly had supported healthy stocks of trout, had seen its fish populations “destroyed.”

Bunker Hill blast furnace and refining buildings

GER: In its prime how many people were employed at Bunker Hill and the mines located in the Couer d’Alenes?

BDS: At its peak Bunker Hill employed 3,151 people. I’m not sure how exactly how many were employed in Shoshone County’s many other mines, but in 1981, just before the closure of Bunker Hill, 4,200 people were employed by the mining industry in the county. As 1981 was far from the industry’s zenith in Shoshone County, my guess is that at its peak (ca. 1957) close to 5,000 people were employed by the mining industry in the Coeur d’Alenes

GER: What was the output of the Bunker Hill facility?

BDS: Not sure I quite understand the question. Do you mean output over its history, peak annual output, or something else? In 1981, Bunker Hill’s production represented twenty percent of the national total for silver and seventeen percent for lead. Bunker’s lead mine and its zinc mine were the largest in the Coeur d’Alenes, an area that between 1885 and 1997 yielded eighteen percent of the nation’s silver, seventeen percent of its zinc and six percent of its lead. For that period, the Coeur d’Alene Mining District ranked first in the nation in silver production, third in lead and third in zinc.

Bunker Hill Smelter

Bunker Hill

GER: Could you describe the Bunker Hill facility and the land mass it occupied?

BDS: Bunker Hill owned and operated much of the land in and around the towns of Kellogg and Smelterville, Idaho, where the bulk of its plant and equipment were housed. This included the Bunker Hill Mine, a major producer of lead and silver, a large lead smelter and a large zinc refinery (each with a ‘tall stack’ after 1977), tailings ponds, and a corporate office in Kellogg. As aspects of its effort to purchase pollution easements or simply the right to pollute lands it owned, Bunker Hill also owned (or leased) tens of thousands of acres of former farmland adjacent to the South Fork and the Coeur d’Alene River. It also purchased “smoke easements” for thousands of acres of Shoshone County land likely to be damaged by its lead and zinc plants’ effluent. In addition, at various times in its history the company owned or leased thousands of acres of area forest lands for its logging operations. The Star Mine, which Bunker co-owned with the Hecla Mining Company, lay within the District but several miles from Kellogg and Smelterville.

GER: Briefly describe the damage inflicted on the waterways and landscapes of Couer d’Alenes by the Bunker Hill facility?

BDS: By the early 1930s, if not earlier, the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River had become essentially a “lifeless river,” devoid of organic life. Below it, the Coeur d’Alene River was not in much better shape. Significant fish populations could not be found in the stream until it had emptied into a large body of water, Lake Coeur d’Alene, and mine tailings were diluted by a large quantity of water. Lead sulphate (dissolved lead) appears to have been a principal culprit in the diminution of the streams’ capacities to support life. Since the installation of modern tailings impoundment facilities by Bunker Hill and the other major mining companies in the late 1960s and early 1970s in response to federal clean water mandates, water quality in the watershed has seen marked improvement. Healthy fish populations now can be found on the Coeur d’Alene River and on parts of the South Fork. Heavy metals in and around the lateral lakes along the lower Coeur d’Alene River also have been significantly cleaned up by the EPA and no longer kill as many geese and ducks as they formerly did. The Bunker Hill smelter and zinc plant rained down many, many tons of lead, sulphur dioxide and other toxins on the landscape of the Coeur d’Alenes over the decades. In August of 1974, following Bunker’s decision to run its smelter at full bore for months without a working pollution control system, the children of Kellogg and Smelterville registered some of the highest blood lead levels ever recorded. After the shutdown of both plants in early 1982, the declaration of the area as a federal Superfund site, and years of household yard cleanups (in which yard dirt down to four feet in depth was removed by the EPA), children’s blood lead levels in the area dropped to below the national average by the early 2000s.

Lead_blast_furnace_at_Bunker_Hill_Smelter

Bunker Hill Lead Blast-Furnace

GER: Could you describe Ulrich Beck’s theorization of two discrete stages of modernity and how it related to Bunker Hill and the Couer d’Alenes?

BDS: Beck holds that under the stage he calls ‘classical industrial society,’ the risks produced by industry (to health, quality of life, etc.), are essentially discounted by people as ‘the price of progress.’ In a later stage, which he dubs ‘advanced modernity,’ people begin to reject the risks as too great to be discounted and to demand that industry do a better job of minimizing them, for example by demanding safer workplaces, less industrial pollution, etc. In the Coeur d’Alenes, the watershed decade when both the larger society (i.e., the U.S., as represented by new federal environmental laws and agencies such as the EPA) and some locals began to push the area’s industrial chieftains into ‘advanced modernity.’

GER: How did the production of lead and zinc effect the workers at Bunker Hill and the residents of Kellogg?

BDS: Workers at the zinc, and to an even greater extent the lead, plant, suffered from a variety of maladies, primarily due to excessive amounts of airborne lead in the workplace. NIOSH studies have shown that Bunker Hill’s lead smelter workers have suffered from heightened death rates from chronic renal disease and renal cancer, both of which are associated with lead exposure, and stroke. A large cohort of children who were exposed to the area’s stratospheric rates of lead in 1973-’74, studied twenty years later as adults, were found to be significantly more likely than the median U.S.  population to suffer from a variety of health problem. These included high blood pressure, infertility, sleep disorders, memory loss, trouble concentrating, learning disabilities, anemia, and depression.

Bunker Hill Stacks Demolished

Demolition of Bunker Hill – Courtesy of Newsweek

GER: What was the environmental/economic impact of the destruction of Bunker Hill on the town of Kellogg and related communities?

BDS: Economically it was devastating. The town suffered the loss of its economic base and consequently lost a major portion of its population and tax base. Kellogg really has never recovered, although it has tried to reinvent itself as a ‘Bavarian Ski Village.’ Environmentally, the area has improved significantly since 1982, and, thanks to the EPA’s cleanup efforts, is probably the cleanest and most healthful it’s been since the early part of the 20th Century.  

GER: Do you believe the current political environment calling for reductions in EPA rules and regulations will bring back smelters, blast furnaces and steel mills to the United States or will they remain in poorer countries without regulation?

BDS: The latter. It’s still a lot more expensive to do that kind of industry in the U.S. than it is in less-developed countries, and even if current efforts to repeal federal environmental regulations are successful, there still will be far more such regulation here than in, let’s say, China.

GER: Has the United States reached the point that residents will put a higher value on their living environment as opposed to sacrificing it for good paying blue collar jobs?

BDS:  I think there are places where folks might be willing to sacrifice the environment to ‘bring back good paying jobs,’ or to retain them – a good number of people in West Virginia appear to support mountaintop-removal coal mining for example – but I think it’s extremely difficult to bring those jobs back once they’ve been lost to other countries. In addition, there are some things U.S. communities just don’t seem to be willing to put up with anymore, for example the level of pollution associated with lead smelting.

GER: Do you believe corporations place a higher value on profits rather than allegiance to communities and nations they once operated in?

BDS:  As a rule, yes. For-profit corporations generally operate in an environment of global competition and are legally bound to maximize profits for their shareholders. Loyalty to community, while perhaps a value to corporate executives, cannot compete with the mandate to maintain competitiveness and maximize profits.

GER: Many residents born in the United States after 1995 have no idea of the high rate of pollution that plants such as Bunker Hill inflicted on the living and working environment of the areas they  once operated in. Living With Lead is a timely release with the calls for deregulation. What impact do you hope for with this book?

BDS: I hope it will encourage readers to think about the level of worker health and environmental tradeoffs that not so long ago were commonplace in the U.S., how and why that has changed, and what kind of world we want to live in going forward.

You can find the book here: BookDetails

 

Bradley D. Snow is assistant teaching professor of history at Montana State University.

g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. You can find him here:About g emil reutter

 

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