The Legacy of the Bunker Hill Mine

Within the unsealed documents was found a two-page memo in which the vice president of Gulf Resources and Chemical Corp. (the company that owned Bunker Hill at that time) calculated an estimation on how much Gulf would have to pay if it continued to expose children to lead emissions rather than shut down the smelter and repair the baghouse. His estimate came to $6 to $7 million for poisoning 500 children. He also examined the possibility of discrediting the doctors who warned of the dangers of lead poisoning. At the time, prices for lead ore were high, so Gulf decided that the profits were far greater than the "costs" of poisoning children. That year Gulf raked in $25.9 million from lead ore. Some of the costs to the workers and community included:

1. The lead pollution was so bad that the State of Idaho was measuring it by tons per square mile. A reading in Kellogg showed in excess of 30 tons of lead per square mile in the year after the fire. Smelterville was put at 25 tons per square mile. "I had pictures I took at 2 p.m.," Bill Yoss said. "it was so dark you had to have your headlights on." The residents of these communities were exposed to mega-doses of lead greater than any other community anywhere else in the world throughout history.

2. The hazardous threshold of lead, back then, was 1,000 parts per million. Sediments along the river bank were measured at 40,000 to 50,000 parts per million. And by 1987, when they were finally measured, 75 percent of the yards in Kellogg and 81 percent of the yards in Smelterville exceeded safe levels.

3. In a study of workers who had worked at the smelter between 1940 and 1965, found that deaths from kidney disease was four times higher than expected based on U.S. death rates. Deaths from kidney cancer were nearly double, and deaths from strokes were one-and-a-half times higher than expected. After the fire 56% of Bunker Hill workers have come down with kidney disease, including myself. It was not until the 1990s that this information was made public. Kidney disease takes a while to hit you after your exposure. Many workers, like myself moved on to other jobs, and thus cannot prove that their illness was caused by exposure to lead at Bunker Hill. They cannot even prove that it is job related. Thus, the figure of 56% has to be a low figure. How they came up with that figure was to track workers by their Social Security numbers and records, medical claims and the National Death Index. How many workers like me that are not included in that 56% no one will ever know. Maybe I will be included when I die. Like many other workers, working with the pain of kidney disease is hard. I had to quit my last job because of it. I have no medical coverage, no on going medical treatment, I keep myself going with roots, herbal teas, lots of cranberry juice and pain killers that I have to go up to Canada to get. Even as I write these words, I am struggling with pain to do so. Even the workers who stayed at Bunker Hill lost their medical insurance because Gulf went bankrupted.

4. Over 5,000 people have been exposed to the lead fallout. In 1974 the Center for Disease Control tested children for blood lead levels and found that all the children living in Smelterville had unsafe levels, as did 99 percent of children in Kellogg and 93 percent of children in Pinehurst. This came to nearly 600 children known to have been poisoned by corporate greed at that time that was documented by the government. No one knows how many other children in the area were poisoned. The government left it at that and did nothing until 1980, six years later, when they found that 75 percent of the preschool children (not even having been born yet at the time of the great exposure) were poisoned. No follow-up studies were done to see if this was a continuing tread, to determine the long-lasting health effects on the children known to be poisoned, and no testing was done on the adults. Again this information was not released until years later, and nothing was done to stop the continuing poisoning of children. It was not until 1994 that another test was done on children, and it found one-fifth of the children had blood-lead levels greater than the harmful level.

Are there words to really tell you how I feel about all this? Even saying that this was premeditated mass murder seems not to be sufficient. To knowing cause deaths of workers, to knowing cause the great suffering of little children with their twisted bodies, and to knowing allow this to continue year after year, there are just no words in any language strong enough for such a crime. No matter how many years past, this crime haunts my very being, it sickens me. With the mixed emotions of sorrow for the victims and immense rage for the profiteers and the government, I will carry this with me to my dying day.

Through a conspiracy by the federal government, the state of Idaho, the courts and Gulf, the people of the area did not know about how badly they had been poisoned until 16 years later. The only action that was taken was by the Public Heath Service which went into the schools and would put on puppet shows to teach children how to play (among the effects of lead poisoning is reduced mental ability).

In 1985 Bunker Hill became the second largest Superfund site in the country, covering an area of 21 square miles. The following is but a small sampling of what was found at the site:

1. Trees, grass and other vegetation would not grow in much of the area because of toxic metals in the soil and high soil acidity caused by sulfur dioxide emissions.

2. The smelter contains at least 36,500 tons of toxic heavy metals including lead, zinc, cadmium, mercury, cobaly, copper, beryllium, arsenic, asbestos, antimony, selenium and PCBs. If all the buildings were to be demolished the hazardous debris from that alone would fill 22,500 dump trucks.

3. The Central Impoundment Area, a level dike of smelter waste piled over 70 feet high and extended for a mile, contains 20 million tons of highly toxic mine tailings. When the wind blows, "fugitive dust" blows into the surrounding towns. Until recently, the town of Kellogg, not knowing of the toxins in the waste, would crush slag off these piles and spread it on icy streets.

4. The yards, playgrounds, schools and even the rugs inside of homes were found to contain lead and other toxic material.

5. The South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River and many streams were found to be repositories for lead, cadmium and zinc. Fish that found their way into these waters were killed. An estimated 72 million tons of mine tailings remain in these waters, and an estimated ton of heavy metals are washed down the river every day. The EPA says that cleaning up this mess in these waterways is beyond the Superfund capabilities.

6. The problem is yet to end, for heavy metals are still coming out of the portals of the mines.

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