Hoff's Aliner Travels
A Travel Blog for US and Canadian Parks with Geological Notes

The Bunker Hill mine, the largest of the Coeur d’Alene area mines, was founded after discovery of silver here in 1885. Initially, the ore was shipped out of the Silver Valley by train for processing; but within a few years, mills were built on-site to extract the metals from the ore. The process used by the first mills, known as “jigging,” was very inefficient, often recovering less than 75% of the metal from the ore. This meant that large amounts of lead and other metals remained in the tailings, which were dumped in nearby waterways. In 1945, in the last months of World War II, the company added a cadmium-processing facility to the smelter, which recovered high-grade cadmium from the smelter’s waste products.

Labor organizing
For years Bunker Hill, like other mines in the region, was the site of intense struggles between regional miners’ unions and mine owners/managers. The owners of the Bunker Hill mine organized with other mine owners to form the Mine Owners Protective Association in order to fight the unions. The Bunker Hill owners repeatedly refused to meet or negotiate with union representatives, leading to regular community protests. On April 29, 1899, during a union demonstration, a group of workers hijacked a Union Pacific train in Burke, Idaho and took it to Wardner. After a firefight with the Bunker Hill security guards, they dynamited the Bunker Hill and Sullivan ore concentrator, which was valued at $250,000.

Environmental issues
Many of the mine tailings were dumped directly into the Coeur d’Aléne River and its tributaries, which became polluted with high levels of sulfur dioxide, lead, and other metals. The water in the river turned opaque gray, earning the stream the nickname “Lead Creek.” An estimated 100 million tons of arsenic, cadmium, and zinc were released into the air, along with 30,000 tons of lead. During the 1970s, when the smelter was still operating, children living in nearby areas began displaying very high blood lead levels. Approximately 26% of the two-year-olds in the region had dangerously high levels of lead in their blood, which had long-term negative consequences for their health, especially intellectual functioning and achievement.

In 1983, the Bunker Hill smelter was added to the National Priorities List as a Superfund site by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. As of 2007, the EPA had spent $200 million attempting to remediate the site, much of which was spent removing contaminated topsoil from residential areas. The state of Idaho had also spent funds since the early 1980s on cleanup. While there were measurable improvements in environmental conditions, a vast amount of cleanup and restoration was still required. In 2011 the government, the Coeur d’Alene, and the state of Idaho (which joined the suit to participate in settlement) reached settlement with the Hecla Mining Company to resolve one of the largest cases ever filed under the Superfund statute. Hecla Mining Company will pay $263.4 million plus interest to the United States and other parties to “resolve claims stemming from releases of wastes from its mining operations.

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