Don’t ask Robin Stanley his opinion of the EPA cleanup unless you’ve got some time. Plenty of time.
“It’s been very difficult for us because the news media likes to sensationalize this stuff,” says Stanley, superintendent of Mullan Schools, a tiny district of 162 students just east of Kellogg. “It’s a heck of lot better to write a story about all of us walking around glowing green in the dark than it is for us to say, ‘Folks, there’s nothing wrong with us.’”
Mullan School District made headlines not long ago when the EPA tested soil beneath the schoolyard’s swing sets and found “dangerously high” lead levels. According to Stanley, EPA tested the soil found beneath 16 to 18 inches of wood chips, as well as dirt underneath a thick layer of grass.
“We don’t even let the kids walk on that grass, for crying out loud! But they [EPA] are going to come up next spring, peel back that sod, remove that dirt and put that sod back down,” says Stanley. “Is that really going to make this place any safer for kids out here? Is that going to lower blood lead levels in Mullan? It’s not. But that’s their whole premise.”
Stanley—who echoes many of Chenoweth-Hage’s arguments—is that the EPA is not considering the pathways of lead exposure. Lead is absorbed by the body either by breathing or eating lead particles. Young children, especially those living in old houses with lead dust or peeling lead paint, are particularly at risk because they often neglect to wash their hands and have frequent hand-to-mouth activity.
Stanley further claims that most of the lead found in the valley is in the form of lead sulfides. Unlike the lead oxides emissions of the 1970s, which were easily absorbed through the lungs, he says sulfides are not “bioavailable,” that is, absorbable by the body. He says that if EPA is truly concerned about lead exposure, it should focus its efforts on the hundreds of aging houses in the Silver Valley that still contain lead paint.
This school superintendent of 13 years says that the real problem his students face are not environmental but economic. With so many parents unemployed or on welfare, his district wrestles with a staggering student turnover rate, 25 percent in one nine-week period. The day we visited, the elementary school lost four students.
“What’s scary about this is, I see kids coming to school and open up a lunch bucket with one slice of bread in there. That bothers me,” says Stanley. “I don’t see kids with lead poisoning. I see them coming with clothes that have holes in them and shoes that aren’t protecting their feet from the cold because their parents can’t get a job.”
As for the often-touted statistics about Shoshone County’s abnormally high number of learning disabled students—Shoshone has three times the number of special education students as any other Idaho county—Panhandle Health District’s Cobb says that Shoshone County leads the state in children living in poverty. As a result, between 40 and 44 percent of the children who move to town arrive with special ed papers already in hand. Stanley says he sees plenty of disabilities related to child abuse, trauma, sickness, and blood-alcohol syndrome, but none, he claims, attributable to lead.
“For 31 years I have never seen one lead-related disability or lead-related illness in the entire school system. Not one,” Stanley says. “Sure, there is a lead problem and we want this valley to be absolutely as clean as it can be. But there are two ways to kill people. You can kill them with lead poisoning or you can kill them by starving them to death.”
Such sentiments are echoed by Dale Lavigne, a 69-year-old pharmacist whose family owns the valley drug store chain, Lavigne Drug Group. Lavigne’s family’s roots run deep in mining. His grandfather was one of 11 men falsely convicted of blowing up the Bunker Hill Mine in an 1899 labor dispute known as “the Second Battle of Bunker Hill.”
“I was born and raised in this valley. I’ve been in the pharmacy business since 1953,” says Lavigne. “I’ve never seen a kid in this valley who is what you really call leaded. These people who say there’s mental retardation and all that? That is bullshit.”
Admittedly, Lavigne is not an impartial observer of the business community or the mining industry. When “Black August” hit in 1981, Lavigne was appointed by then-governor John Evans to help sell the Bunker Hill mine. Lavigne has remained involved in economic development for the last 20 years and still serves on Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s task force on rural Idaho.
Asked what should be done with Bunker Hill, Lavigne is unequivocal: “I’d like to see the EPA get out of here. Completely.”
Getting the Lead Out
There is bitter irony that the Silver Valley’s most persistent gadfly on the health effects of lead contamination has no choice but to live in a house dangerously contaminated with lead. But for Barbara Miller, community lead health activist and founder of the Silver Valley People’s Action Coalition (SVPAC) in Kellogg, it is one more painful reminder of the challenges you face when you take on the company mentality in a company town.
After a violent break-up from her husband, a member of a prominent family in Kellogg, Miller was thrown out of her home in June 1999. With little money to find alternative housing, Miller was offered shelter in nearby Wallace by two members of her group, Tina and Harve Paddock, who had moved back to Oregon after discovering that their new “dream house” in Wallace was contaminated with lead. The Paddocks say the sellers and real estate agent failed to disclose that the house had lead levels 260 times higher than federal standards, which is a violation of federal law. Their lawsuit is pending.
Since then, Miller has been charged with voter fraud in a school bond election in Kellogg, even though her legal residence is in Kellogg and her daughter attends school there. According to one Shoshone County prosecutor, he has never seen a voter fraud case in 24 years.
“If I were a single white male, there would still be some resistance to my work, but I don’t think it would stoop to the personal level,” says Miller. “I’ve had my water turned off and I’ve been thrown out on the street with my 11-year-old daughter.”
Miller has been pilloried for her activism by the local press. The Coeur d’Alene Press (owned by Duane Hagadone, a prominent name in Idaho mining, tourism and real estate) and Kellogg’s Shoshone News Press launch frequent attacks on their editorial pages against her and her followers, who are derisively referred to as “Millistines.”
While Miller’s critics charge that she has no following, I met with at least a dozen of her group’s 300 members, who ticked off a laundry list of medical ailments consistent with heavy metals exposure.
“My husband and I know six people now who have died of brain tumors in our community,” says Jeanie Smith, a 12-year member of SVPAC who grew up in nearby Cataldo, a community well outside the box. “Four of them were in their 20s.”
Smith knows many people, including her husband, who suffer from fibromyalgia, a mysteriously debilitating disease common in the valley that causes severe pain but does not physically damage the body. She can’t think of a woman her age who hasn’t had a miscarriage, and knows one woman who had five. Mitch Killebrew notes that his daughter’s friend had six miscarriages. She’s 19.
I ask them why people in the area would be quick to dismiss or ignore such health problems.
“It’s a hundred years of mining saying, ‘If you’re leaded or if your children are leaded, then you’re filthy, you’re dirty and it’s your fault,’” says Smith. “It’s ingrained in this community.”