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EPA Funding May Prove Salvation of Idaho Valley

Residents hope to attract tourists and jobs to an area ravaged by mining waste. Plans hinge on a proposed golf resort and industrial park.

August 03, 2003|Nicholas K. Geranios | Associated Press Writer

KELLOGG, Idaho — On an artificial hill formed by a century of mining waste, residents of this depressed town envision a golf course, factories and a future.

The federal government is buying into the dream. The Environmental Protection Agency designated the largest single grant of Superfund money in the nation next year for cleaning up the Silver Valley.

The goal is to turn the Kellogg area into a place where residents are safe from pollution and where tourists can pull off Interstate 90 to spend money.

"There's a cloud hanging over the valley we want to get rid of," said Luke Russell, an Idaho Department of Environmental Quality official helping direct the cleanup.

The Silver Valley region of the Idaho Panhandle was one of the most economically devastated landscapes in the nation after a century of underground mining left heavy metals like lead and zinc in the area's soil and water.

Rocky Mountain hillsides were denuded of vegetation by toxic pollutants spewing from smokestacks on the Bunker Hill smelter site. Lead dust settled in people's homes and lawns, causing elevated blood lead levels in the community's children for decades.

Studies conducted after cleanup started in 1983 showed as many as 46% of the area's children had lead in their blood above national standards. Testing in 2001 showed the cleanup has dropped the share of children with high lead levels to 3%.

Mountains of black mining waste were piled along Interstate 90, which cuts through the valley. It has been a Superfund site since 1983.

At the same time, thousands of mining jobs were lost, leaving an unemployment rate that is typically the highest in Idaho.

Vince Rinaldi grew up the Silver Valley in a time when miners flush with union wages reared their families in relative prosperity. He left for three decades to pursue a business career before returning to a much different place in 2001.

"Obviously the change economically from 1970 to the present is pretty dramatic," Rinaldi said.

Now the director of the Silver Valley Economic Development Corp., it is his job to attract new jobs, and hold onto the handful of small manufacturers the valley has left.

The pace of job creation is expected to accelerate as the federal government begins releasing formerly polluted land for development, especially a 21-square-mile area of the former Bunker Hill site known as the Box.

Eagle Crest Communities has announced plans to build a golf course, 1,000 housing units and a 140-acre light industrial park on the site. The Redmond, Ore., company, which already owns the nearby Silver Mountain ski area, says it will spend $10.5 million to develop a four-season destination resort in the Silver Valley.

As a result, the Bush administration in July decided the Silver Valley would be one of only 10 places in the nation that would split $49 million for new Superfund projects next year. At $15 million, it was by far the largest single award.

The Silver Valley was singled out because it contains the opportunity to reconstruct "a world-class recreation area," said Marianne L. Horinko, the EPA's acting administrator.

"When we looked at these sites we ranked them by the potential health risk and the economic development potential," said Mark McIntire, an EPA spokesman in Seattle. "Bunker Hill came out at the top of the list."

That was welcome news in Kellogg, the largest town in the Silver Valley with 2,300 people.

Like many former mining boom towns, Kellogg has a decrepit feel. As a visitor can tell from the many red brick buildings, there was prosperity here once. But now, many of those buildings are boarded up. Houses are battered and there are few stores.

Shoshone County, which contains the Silver Valley, lost 2.8% of its 13,500 residents between 2001 and 2002, the highest rate in the state, according to U.S. Census estimates.

That continued a long downward decline. Between 1980 and 1990, the county lost 27.5% of its residents.

What economic activity remained was largely centered on cleanup work and seasonal labor at the ski area. The sparkling blue gondolas lifted skiers up and over the urban decay all winter long.

Greg Siebert of the Idaho Department of Commerce said the state has invested millions to upgrade the Silver Valley infrastructure. But there is little available land in the narrow valley for industrial use.

That's why the release of land on the Bunker Hill site is so eagerly anticipated, he said.

Developers usually need to spend plenty of money to ensure that land is ready for development, Siebert said.

"Here they can be guaranteed environmental clearance on the whole site and guaranteed EPA approval," Siebert said.

Barbara Miller, a longtime environmental activist who has pushed for more cleanup of the valley, said the remediation of mining wastes has been an economic development opportunity in itself.

"That has been the most viable economic development in the community since the closure of the smelter in the early 1980s," Miller said.

After learning the hard way about relying on a single industry, Rinaldi wants a diversified economic base for the Silver Valley.

"I don't see why we can't have tourism and light manufacturing," he said.

One undeniable fact about the Silver Valley is that land is cheap, with many houses selling for around $50,000. But cheap land alone will not draw new jobs, Siebert said.

"People up there have struggled for a long time since the mine closures," Siebert said. "A lot of people there are starting to realize there is a bright future ahead."

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