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The Wallace Street Journal

An Open Letter to the E.P.A., Region 10


February 7, 2011

By David Bond, Editor
Silverminers.com

Wallace, Idaho " Dear E.P.A.

What part of NO! do you not understand? When all seven villages and cities of the Coeur d'Alene Mining District say NO! to your 50- to 90-year, billion-dollar-plus Superfund juggernaut, please consider the significance of this historical unanimity.

EPA, you must understand that this mining camp is composed of seven towns that never agree on anything. With a county population of just over 12,000 people, you might find it incomprehensible that seven incorporated cities with seven mayors and seven city councils could exist in a place this size. We also have three distinct school districts and two chambers of commerce, plus three county commissioners. The only thing we have one of is a hospital, and that's a recent development (there used to be a half-dozen of them).

The running joke around here, whenever the fanciful notion of consolidating comes up for discussion, is that everyone still sleeps in his letterman's jacket. In other words, forget it. We are independent, autonomous, and proud of it.

We are anomalous in other ways that a Prius-driver cannot get, too: We are pro-gun, pro-hunting, pro-fishing, pro-wildlife, pro-labor, pro-mining, pro-capital, pro-logging, and the last time we elected a Republican to office it was the late coroner, Dr. Gnaedinger. A riddle wrapped inside an enigma, are we. We dote over our kids, which is why nobody from Wallace wants to surrender control of the school board to some hicks over in Kellogg, and we're sure the Kellogg hicks probably feel the same way about the snobs up here in Wallace.

So when the seven mayors, seven city councils, and all three county commissioners actually agree on something, it would be wise to break with precedent and instead pay attention. Sorry, but “comment duly noted” as a response to the protestations of all seven cities " as has been your response to past protestations of continued EPA occupation of our county " won't fly this time.

EPA, you've done a few good things in your two decades here in Silver Valley. But mining, neither past nor present nor future, has ever posed a human health hazard here " by your own admission " even as you and the Centers for Disease Control have ratcheted down the acceptable level of lead in kids to the undetectable nether-regions.

There was a time, in the immediate aftermath of the winter, 1974, a bag-house fire in the lead-smelter bag-house at the Bunker Hill metallurgical complex " allowing tons of lead-oxide to spew from the smelter stacks, unfiltered " an egregious and profit-motivated insult to the blood-lead levels in children living immediately by the smelter. Quick action was taken by the State of Idaho and the CDC.

Let's face it: the largest drop in children's blood-lead levels occurred when the Bunker Hill lead smelter closed for good at the end of 1981. No emissions, no smoke, no more ingestible lead-oxide. Of course, no more jobs, either. And, EPA, you did some good things in the aftermath, by paving or turfing-over the rights-of-way, parking lots and parks where the smelter dust and smoke had settled.

But you've done some insane things, too. Like prohibiting our use of smelter black slag, essentially inert silica, on the black-icy roads in the winters, in the unlikely event that somehow the slag will get heated up to 2,000 degrees and give up a tiny amount of lead. Or prohibiting us from dumping snow scraped from Wallace's streets into the river. I mean, where does all that snow go when it melts, do you suppose? Trust me, it doesn't magically evaporate.

Mining is a boom-and-bust business. Everyone here knows that. It's not because mining companies are evil and like to throw their people on the street every couple of decades. It's because the metals we mine are traded on world markets and those markets run in cycles. Right now the metals, and the mining industry, are in the most tremendous boom since the end of World War II. Mining employment in America grew by nearly 11 percent last year. Here, it grew by zip. Every mining camp in the world except ours is participating in this boom. And why? Because you're here and won't leave within any living person's lifetime.

When the EPA was created by Richard Nixon, Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River were catching fire and the Hudson River was producing three-headed fish. Kids were eating lead-oxide-based paint and window putty, and automobiles were spewing millions of tons of lead out their exhaust pipes. Many of our canned foods were soldered together with lead. Our cities were enshrouded in smog. Americans lived in real, physical danger from the air they breathed and the water they drank.

That is no longer the case " at least here in the Coeur d'Alene Mining District. We breathe clean Rocky Mountain Air. We drink pristine mountain water whose only contaminant, only poison, is the chlorine you forced us, at great expense, to start injecting into it a decade or two ago. Our miners, who work in lead rock all day long, have no lead-health problems and never had. Your attention " by your own admission " is no longer focused on human health here. You're worried instead about some subspecies of zinc-sensitive computer-modeled robins. Is such worry really worth 90 years, and $1.3 billion, and a terminally-depressed mining economy?

EPA, of the hundreds who spoke on the matter of your expanded Superfund powers in your dog-and-pony show “hearings” last year, only one person " a pompadoured hired gun from an environmental pressure group in Coeur d'Alene " spoke in favor of your continued occupation of our neck of the woods. We are a mining community, not a government town. We produce the metals that they build your Prius batteries with and that form the electronics in your Volvos, HDTVs, computers and roofing nails.

You behave less like a government agency concerned with the general welfare than an occupying army. Your conduct here was likened by your own Ombudsman, Hugh Kaufman, a decade ago as the behaviour of “jack-booted thugs.” We miners are Parisians in Vichy France. For every seasonal job you create moving dirt from one place to another, you are very likely destroying two or three full-time, high-paying mining jobs that come with benefits, security, and a sense of worth. We need your permission to plant a shrub. You are destroying a way of life, as well. The way it looks from here, you'd rather have us all on the dole.

Some people blame EPA for the collapse of the mining economy during the post-1980 Paul Volcker years. We're not that naive. Last we checked, EPA doesn't (yet) rig the world prices of lead, zinc, silver, copper and gold. You're not (yet) that powerful. But your continued presence here does intimidate investors who would otherwise be flocking to the Coeur d'Alene Mining District to roll the dice on new ore deposits and the 100-year mines, with their concomitant generational jobs, that these discoveries up here seem to produce. Your cheeky disregard for our well-being is no more clear than in your practice of holding back-to-back dog-and-pony shows here, but skedaddling back to stay in Coeur d'Alene for the night " because you're too good to stay in any of our fine hotels.

Be also warned, EPA: The political climate has changed. The cheerleaders you used to trot out to promote your Mining District hegemony " the Spokesman-Review's Karen Dorn Steele, and the knuckle draggers at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer " are history. Mrs. Steele retired and the P-I is no longer in print. Our unanimous sense of indignation is only provoked by your facile rationale for permanence here. And you're at loggerheads with a collapsing U.S. economy that could be greatly repaired by a restored resource-based economy here. How else are you government types going to pay off the Chinese?

We'll accept something sensible, with an exit strategy. Shore up the work you've done, but don't tear the entire river to pieces. Institute a little flood control, which is not in your proposal, if you're that worried about old mine tailings in the sand bars. Look a mine-owner's investor in the eye and tell him that under no circumstances will you interfere with his ability to explore and produce. Fix the streets you ruined in Smelterville, hauling harmless dirt from one place to another. Look yourselves in the mirror. We're fine here. Fix yourselves before you try to fix us.

The mining culture of the Coeur d'Alene District, indeed of the hard-rock West, brought enlightenment to the United States of America. You can thank us for strong, private-sector unionism, for women's suffrage, for the policies of hard money that got this country through far worse recessions than this. For a work ethic, for a sense of optimism that the next generation can be better off than this one.

This time, ignore us at your peril, EPA. Or face the same fate as your creator.