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Tarnished Luster

TOWNS DIE like people, with anger and dread, alarm and courage. And, of course, with hope. I found all those emotions on a recent visit to the Silver Valley in Idaho’s panhandle, where old mining communities have been withering away for 20 years.

This area, also known as the Coeur d’Alene, was once one of the world’s most famous mining districts, producing prodigious amounts of lead, zinc, and silver. But as mining’s fortunes waned, so did Silver Valley’s.

The latest casualty was the Sunshine Mine in Big Creek, which closed earlier this year despite being the country’s biggest silver mine. Only four mines remain, and two of those are wobbly—the Bunker Hill mine in Kellogg runs on a skeletal crew, and the Lucky Friday in Mullan is cutting its workforce from 189 to 42 by January 2002. The area’s unemployment rate is almost three times the state average. The biggest town, Kellogg (population 2,395), has lost nearly a third of its people since 1980, and downtown is forlorn with empty storefronts.

“More people are moving out than moving in,” says Dale Brown, a Realtor in Kellogg. Homeowners hoping to bail out often can’t find buyers, even at rock-bottom prices. Brown can show you some nice two bedroom houses for less than $30,000. Repossessions are common. The exodus has a ripple effect: schools close, teachers get laid off, small businesses suffer and die.

What’s killing Silver Valley? I heard the same list of causes again and again. The market prices for metals have been flat for years. Government regulations keep getting stricter. A multi-billion dollar lawsuit filed by the Coeur d’Alene Indians and the federal government is pending against the mining companies over contaminants carried down the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River over the previous century. Worst of all, the EPA has all but confirmed its intention to designate the entire valley a Superfund site—1,500 square miles, from the Idaho-Montana border into Washington. The EPA contends that mining sediments potentially pose a serious health risk. The massive clean-up would cost at least a billion dollars and take 20 to 30 years.

This isn’t the first time that the valley has hit hard times. Mining has always been boom-and-bust. But this bust has lasted for a generation, and the question is whether it’s just the newest chapter in a continuing saga, or the end of the story.

DAVID BOND moved here from Seattle in 1978 to work as a reporter and never left. Wry and blunt, he ekes out a living as a freelancer and does occasional barbed columns for Kellogg’s Shoshone News-Press.

“When I first came here,” he tells me, sitting over beer and oysters in the Broken Wheel restaurant in Kellogg, “if you met someone, pretty soon you knew their parents and their grandparents. People stayed here.”

The valley was a rough-and-ready place in those days, he adds. Boys followed their fathers into the mines straight from high school, and were proud to do the skilled, macho labor there. When a shift ended, the bars filled up. In the ‘70s, Bond says, the town of Wallace still had 13 saloons and five brothels, which were legal.

Then in 1982 the valley’s biggest and most famous mine, the Bunker Hill, closed and threw 2,000 people out of work. The area still hasn’t recovered.

“I don’t see the future getting any better,” continues Bond. His analysis: the Old West has been left behind by a change in values. “We got folks here who make stuff,” he says, “and on the West Coast they got folks who use stuff.” Like others here, he sees the EPA, whose regional directors live in Seattle, as the chief enforcer of West Coast values. He waves his arm to indicate the Broken Wheel’s Formica tables, the inexpensive paneling, the bar with Bud, and only Bud, on tap. “It’s this place versus Starbucks,” he says.

When I talk to Jim Mortensen he’s in his last few days at the Sunshine mine, helping to put it into maintenance mode—cold storage, essentially—until the price of silver rises. An underground miner for 35 years, he’s a “gyppo,” slang for a top miner who gets incentive pay based on the amount of ore he produces or how many linear feet he advances a tunnel.

Mortensen made $70,000 to $80,000 a year at the Sunshine. I ask what he’ll do next. “I got a ranch and I don’t want to sell it,” he says, so he plans to follow other miners from the valley to a platinum mine in Nye, Montana, where he’ll work a seven-day shift and then commute 450 miles back home for seven days off.

John and Stacie Putz are in similar straits. They bought an old house in Wallace 11 years ago and fixed it up. Now John, an industrial mechanic, is laid off from the Sunshine and Stacie is laid off from the Department of Commerce. They like the valley and hope to hang on here, but there’s no work. They’re reluctantly considering Montana or Nevada. “The kids are in school and we’ve really worked to make this house nice,” says Stacie. “But we’re going to have to make a decision pretty soon.”

Chuck Peterson, a big genial 68-year-old, was raised just uphill from Kellogg and worked in the mines most of his life. Now he and his wife Mary Lou run a well-worn coffee-and-gift shop in Wardner (population 215). But his pride and joy is the ramshackle building next door, Chuck’s Memorabilia Museum, an eccentric menagerie of photos, signs, tools, old ledgers, and other stuff pertaining to the valley’s mines. Admission is free, as long you listen to Peterson’s high-speed spiel about the discovery of the Bunker Hill lode in 1885 at a spot visible from his front porch.

I ask why he collected such heaps of mining memorabilia. “For my kids and grandkids,” he says. “For history.” Which, in his view, needs not only preservation these days, but protection.

“My parents had 10 kids and all of them worked in the mines,” he tells me. “We all had kids and they all had kids here, and none of us are leaded and deaded.” He grins. “So it’s not as black as it’s been painted.”

It’s been painted pretty black, and not always falsely. For 50 years the Bunker Hill smelter disgorged sulphur dioxide, shrouding Kellogg with a noxious, foul-smelling cloud that was often trapped in the narrow valley by atmospheric inversions. Nothing grew on the dead mountainsides.

In 1973, when a fire destroyed part of the smelter’s air-filtration system, the company continued to operate the smelter at full capacity, knowingly spewing sulphur dioxide over Kellogg for months to take advantage of a surge in the price of lead. Two years later epidemiologists tested 172 children living near the smelter and found dangerously high levels of lead in 98 percent of them. Kellogg’s schools were contaminated as well. Ingestion of lead particles, especially by children, can cause serious health problems: reduced IQ, academic difficulties, memory loss, and other disabilities.

In 1985 the EPA declared a 21-square-mile area around the smelter a Superfund site, nicknamed “the box.” Sixteen years and more than $200 million later, the EPA is finally in the last stages of its work there. The topsoil from almost 1,500 yards, parks, and playgrounds has been removed and replaced. Old tailings have been collected in a 200-acre impoundment. The smelter chimneys, the valley’s most prominent symbol of mining, were demolished.

Now the mountainsides are green again and the blood lead levels of children in the box have dropped sharply, nearly to the conservative level recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. Schools in the valley are uncontaminated. Jerry Cobb, environmental health supervisor at Panhandle Health District in Kellogg, has been doing tests and studies for the state and the EPA since 1985. “We certainly do not have any kind of a public health emergency here,” he tells me.

So people wonder why the EPA plans to saddle the entire valley with a Superfund designation and further tarnish their reputation. “We’re portrayed as not caring or too dumb to care,” says Jon Cantamessa, who owns a grocery in Wallace and is a county commissioner. Robin Stanley, a lifetime resident of the area and now the superintendent of schools in Wallace and Mullan, tells me about a volleyball team from outside the valley that came to play in Mullan. When one of their players turned on a water fountain, a teammate shouted, “Don’t drink the water!”, stunning the valley kids.

EPA officials profess bewilderment that the area doesn’t want the agency’s help. “It’s not atypical to hear that there is not a health problem,” Mary Jane Nearman tells me from Seattle, where she is EPA’s project manager for the Coeur d’Alene basin. “Even when we had [high blood lead levels], we were chased out of town.”

I CATCH Dee McMackin as he emerges from the Bunker Hill at the end of his shift, tired and dirty. A tall powerful-looking man with a drawl and a shy smile, he has been working underground for 43 of his 62 years, most of them at the Bunker Hill.

He’s now foreman on the small crew that still works the mine. He apologizes for being hard of hearing: “I’ve been around drills so long.” He tried college for a year but returned to the mines. “It just gnaws at you, just gets in your blood,” he says.

“Why?” I ask. “To me it seems claustrophobic and dark and dangerous.” In early June, for instance, two men died in the Galena mine near Silverton after a “rock burst” fractured the tunnel, burying them 4,600 feet below the surface.

McMackin looks away, thinking. “You go in and you look at solid rock,” he says. “You drill a pattern for blasting, and when you come back it’s a pile of rock. And after you clear it, you’ve stood where no man has stood before.”

Between the EPA and the price of metals, he’s not sure how much longer mining will last in the valley. Even if the industry’s problems disappeared tomorrow, he doubts there are enough skilled miners left to get out the ore.

In the late 1980s, local business people in Kellogg tried to rekindle the economy and attract tourists by turning the town into an “alpine village” with faux-Bavarian storefronts and other bric-a-brac. The tacky remnants of that experiment still disfigure downtown. A ski gondola opened in 1990, but since there’s little in Kellogg to interest the après-ski crowd, the slopes attract only day-trippers.

Dale Brown, the Kellogg Realtor, is also chairman of the Silver Valley Economic Development Corporation, whose purpose is to attract new businesses to the area. He’s a booster. Yet he admits that it’s been almost impossible to convince companies to come here because of the Superfund stigma. His one success is a call-center that opened in June and will employ 100 people to take catalog orders and provide other telephone services.

Nevertheless, he’s optimistic. “To me the future looks great,” he tells me, sitting in his office, “but it’s not going to be mining or timbering. I think tourism will bring in other entrepreneurs, which will take care of the empty storefronts.”

That dream got a boost in July when the company that owns the ski gondola announced plans to build a golf course and 1,000 condominiums. Retirees are discovering the valley as well, attracted by cheap real estate and beautiful piney mountains.

Tourists and retirees aren’t Bob Hopper’s idea of a future. He’s betting on mining. Now 62, he worked as a miner and eventually started leasing mines and consulting before buying the Bunker Hill in 1992 and putting it back into limited production. A rough-looking, emotional man with mutton-chop sideburns, he is passionate about the heritage of Western mining. It chafes him that the public demands cars and computers and millions of other metal products, yet considers miners and mining offensive. “If It Can’t Be Grown,” asserts a poster in his office, “It’s Gotta Be Mined.”

He takes me two miles into the Bunker Hill on a small open railcar, his headlight barely denting the pitch dark ahead. The mountain is a gigantic hive, with eight levels above us and 21 below. Vertical shafts connect more than 150 miles of horizontal tunnels or “drifts.” It’s a triumph of engineering. In its heyday, 2,200 people worked here. Hopper employs 10.

“To reopen a mine like this,” he says as we walk through a tunnel, “requires track repair, which requires timbering, which requires bringing in compressed air, which requires electricity, which requires building a substation. And if you pick the wrong place, you have to do it all again. It requires luck and guts and hard work. You asked me before whether it’s worth it. That’s like asking a boxer in round 38 if it’s worth it. He doesn’t know, because he doesn’t know how many rounds are left. Some questions,” he says, “you just can’t answer until it’s over.”

©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.

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