Lessons from a 1,500-Square-Mile Lead Catastrophe

Lessons from a 1,500-Square-Mile Lead Catastrophe

February 09, 2017
Written by Brooks Berndt

After a hundred years of mining contaminated the Coeur d’Alene River as well as nearby lakes and lands with lead, the Environmental Protection Agency in 1983 designated 21-square-miles of  Spring Valley as the Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Complex Superfund site. The federal government was to fund the cleanup of one of the largest and most polluted places in the country. Mining had long polluted the area with lead, arsenic, cadmium, and zinc. In 2002, the site was expanded to cover all of the 1,500-square-mile Coeur d’Alene Basin that stretches across both Northern Idaho and Eastern Washington. It is now the largest lead superfund site in the nation.

BarbaraMiller.jpegTo this day, the lead poisoning of children remains an ongoing issue. In this interview, I spoke with Barbara Miller of the Silver Valley Community Resource Center which established a program called Children Run Better Unleaded to address this health crisis that spans decades. I wanted to learn more about SVCRC’s program as well as the situation she currently faces in seeking environmental justice. I also wanted to know if there were lessons for other parts of the country to learn in addressing lead poisoning.

Tell me about Children Run Better Unleaded. How does it work? What have been its successes?

The Children Run Better Unleaded project was created to help parents and care providers respond to a well-documented instance of massive lead poisoning that has led to six generations of families living with chronic health conditions.  This program exists because no other agency from the State of Idaho or the Bunker Hill Superfund site has ever taken action to provide proactive professional intervention during the three decades since the Superfund site was first designated by the Environmental Protection Agency. We do education, outreach, and proactive remedies.

Over these many years, we have found that there is an ongoing need to reach out to families, so that they can know about the dangers of lead, receive testing, and take appropriate action when elevated levels of lead are found. After the families agree to participate, children are taken to a clinic and given a simple finger poke to get a blood sample for immediate determination of lead levels. If the level is 5 or greater, families who qualify for Medicaid receive case management attention. The trained staff of the SVCRC go to the homes to determine the source of the lead exposure.

In the case of the families in Bunker Hill, there are numerous sources of lead. The interior of homes has been the easiest to identify due to testing that the EPA has done. Even with a binding EPA Record of Decision to remove high lead levels in the interior of homes, however, the EPA has not done this within the four towns of the Bunker Hill site.

SVCRC’s Children Run Better Unleaded project has relocated families whose children were found to have elevated lead levels. Education materials about good nutrition are shared with parents, because good nutrition is one of the best ways to offset early elevated lead exposures. For many in the Silver Valley, this comes at a high cost since the area is poverty stricken. To make matters worse, the pollution is so bad that the health district discourages vegetable gardens due to the absorption of lead and other heavy metals still in the soils.

Follow-up monitoring to test the children so that lead levels come down is important at different stages of the early childhood development. SVCRC has also compiled a long referral list of medical professionals for families who want to consult first hand with experts about lead issues. With the help of funds graciously contributed by two board members, the SVCRC has demonstrated success with its Children Run Better Unleaded project in serving a small number of families.

The SVCRC and affected citizens are calling for the establishment of a Community Lead Health Clinic/Center and a portion of the $750,000,000 in settlement funds that the EPA possesses, so that we can improve the quality of life for children who are, and will continue to be, exposed to lead.

I have read that a survey of parents in Silver Lake found that as many as 70 percent of parents in about 100 households were hostile to their children being tested for lead. A lot of stigma and shame is associated with testing positive for high levels. What can you share about understanding this response to testing and seeking to address it effectively?

As an affected citizen, mother, grandmother, and community activist who has dedicated 30 yrs. to getting help for the children and for removing lead from one of the most devastated places anywhere, I want to be clear in stating that the families and parents of Silver Valley are not different than anywhere else in the world! Mothers and fathers care about their children. They are overwhelmed when they are told by care providers, public health officials, doctors, and others that they do not know what they are talking about when they ask if lead is causing the behavioral and learning disruptions of their children.

We live in a community that is a rural, isolated company town with all of the appearances of Appalachia. Special interests and polluters are the ones that EPA is influenced by even when there is a plethora of documentation and resources extended over the years to validate serious lead health issues like those in Flint, Michigan. Yet, this is all covered up. Those who speak out are demonized, threatened, and still have to find a way to get the help they and their children need. When a child is confirmed with an elevated lead level, the remedy the public health department gives to all parents is “damp mop your floors and make sure children wash their hands.” How ridiculous is that?

Even though millions and millions of dollars come into the community from the EPA, only a small number of children are test each year, only to have their lead level results used to justify digging up yards as a response. This is simply a form of exploitation when there is lead in the interior of homes that the EPA has never addressed. Yards continue to be dug up with the contamination placed in large dumps on acres near river banks and in communities. This only leads to continued lead exposure.

Recently, SVCRC and its Environmental Justice colleagues learned that Region Ten of the EPA was covering up lead issues such as children’s lead levels just as they did in Flint. Ongoing accountability of affected citizens, parents, and care providers at Bunker Hill of EPA and government agencies led by non-profit organizations and church leaders such as the UCC is how communities like Bunker Hill and Flint will become effective! Unity and support can go along ways in eliminating personal blame, shame, and guilt. Funding the establishment of proactive lead intervention as exemplified in the SVCRC’s Children Run Better Unleaded should be the priority!

There are a number of communities in the United States that suffer from lead poisoning. What lessons from your experience might you offer to people elsewhere? 

It’s true there are many communities suffering from lead poisoning. Childhood lead poisoning is completely preventable. Through trial and error, the SVCRC has created a successful lead intervention program that has shaped and improved the quality of life for the families. The organization was blessed with the input of many concerned and caring sources, including the best lead experts in the world. These experts have helped design a blueprint for a state of the art lead clinic that we hope to implement. The clinic could be duplicated and utilized by other communities living with lead contamination.

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