The lead poisoning in Flint, Mich., has Idaho environmental authorities taking extra steps to ensure such an event can’t happen here.
Jerri Henry, who runs the drinking water program for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, saw what happened in Flint and asked herself: “Are we doing enough?”
Idaho has 900 drinking water systems, ranging from some serving a few dozen people in a subdivision to Suez Boise’s system serving 240,000 people. Henry has asked every Idaho water utility to look at its system and paperwork and make sure they are safe for lead, and gave them until July to get it done. DEQ knows at least three systems in Southwest Idaho, including the one at Tamarack Resort, are not in compliance.
But people like Paul Flory and hundreds of other residents of North Idaho’s Silver Valley worry that the new national focus on lead comes 40 years too late. Flory’s lead poisoning came from the air, not the water. But like the Flint nightmare, a breakdown at the state and federal levels left generations of Idahoans at risk.
WHAT HAPPENED AT BUNKER HILL?
In 1973, a fire destroyed the smokestack filter at the Bunker Hill Mining Co. smelter in Kellogg, where ore was heated in a furnace to extract lead and zinc. But the company kept operating the plant for 18 months, sending tons of lead up its stacks, covering the surrounding communities in lead and heavy metal-laced dust.
Flory, 46, of Smelterville, went to school and played in the shadow of smelter smokestacks where backyards, playgrounds and parks were covered with lead pollution so serious that many children in 1974 started showing up with signs of severe lead poisoning — loss of energy and appetite, constipation, irritability and abdominal pain.
Doctors from the Centers for Disease Control tested Kellogg children and found some had lead levels of 80 micrograms per deciliter of blood. The health limit at the time was 40 micrograms; today, the recommended limit is 5 micrograms.
Of 172 children living closest to the smelter in January 1975, all but two had dangerously high levels of lead in their bloodstreams. Hundreds of others throughout the valley also were poisoned. They could expect developmental problems, mental health issues and kidney and heart problems the rest of their lives.
Flory didn’t know about any of this when he was a child. His parents told him nothing at the time and it wasn’t until 2004 that he learned from friends that he could see the results of his boyhood tests for lead. By then, the effects of even low levels of lead were well-known to health officials.
Flory’s tests showed that at 9 years old his lead level was 28 micrograms. At 10, it was 27 micrograms and at age 12, 23 micrograms.
“When they told me what the symptoms were I said, ‘That’s me, that’s my life,’” Flory said. “I’ve had mental health issues all my life, so when I found out, it was great to finally know.”
HIGH LEAD LEVELS IN SILVER VALLEY
In Flint, lead levels in drinking water rose sharply when the city, under a state-appointed manager, switched its water source from Lake Huron to the more corrosive Flint River. Health and environmental officials began seeing a rise in the numbers of children with blood levels of 5 micrograms or more. Some exceeded 10.
That’s well below what the North Idaho children experienced in the 1970s.
“I knew something was wrong all the time, and a lot of other people were in the same boat,” Flory said. “The thing at Flint ... got people thinking again.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated a 21-square-mile area around the Bunker Hill smelter as a Superfund site in 1983. In the 1990s, crews removed the upper 12 inches of soil in more than 1,600 yards, replacing it with a barrier and then clean topsoil and sod. The EPA has since expanded the Superfund site to the entire Silver Valley, and the mining companies whose operations over a century contributed to the heavy metal contamination paid $700 million for the cleanup, which continues.
IDAHO REGULATORS TAKE ANOTHER LOOK
Lawsuits that followed showed the Bunker Hill disaster was caused by a company that made a calculated decision to keep the smelter running to take advantage of high prices even though it threatened children’s health. Like Flint, state and federal environmental officials failed to catch it or prevent it. Bunker Hill lost an early lawsuit, and went bankrupt in 1981.
“By any yardstick, the cleanup work of the last 20-plus years has made the people of the Silver Valley significantly safer,” said EPA regional director Dennis McLarren. “That said, much work remains. ... We need to redouble our efforts to improve water quality and address lead exposure risks in recreational areas.”
In the 1970s, lead was much less of a concern than it is today. It spewed from auto exhausts — lead was a gas additive — and was routinely used in paint until 1978. Today, health officials say no level of lead is safe for children. Every organ in the body can be affected.
It’s against that background that DEQ’s Henry decided that Idaho needed to redouble its water-monitoring efforts.
Any time one of Idaho’s 900 drinking water systems makes a change, it must do tests at the most at-risk homes. Those are usually homes with pipes installed before lead was banned in 1986 or those with pipe joints soldered with lead-copper solder.
If lead levels in the water exceed 15 parts per billion, the state can force utilities to take corrective action, which usually means helping them get back into compliance.
But Henry wanted to do more. That’s why she gave the systems the July deadline to double-check.
“These aren’t required,” she said, “but they make sense.”
Henry said she has gotten a positive response. The city of Meridian had decided on its own to conduct a full evaluation of the lead levels in its water.
TAMARACK REPORTS HIGH LEAD
DEQ records showed three water systems in the Southwest Idaho region out of compliance on lead, which is limited to 15 parts per billion. Two are subdivisions near Crouch in Boise County, Castle Mountain Creeks and River at Pine Tree, which together serve about 300 people. DEQ is working with the systems to bring them back into compliance.
The largest is Tamarack Resort, which has 350 connections but just a sporadic seasonal population. Its violation comes from its large size and low use, which leaves water sitting in the system’s pipes, Henry said. Because the resort is new, it has modern and compliant water pipes. The lead is coming from soldered joints.
The resort went through the two six-month water-monitoring periods and still was in violation, so it hired an engineering firm that recommended it add soda ash in filtration to raise the water’s pH and reduce its corrosiveness. Properly treated, the water won’t leach the lead from the solder.
With any home or water faucet that is used rarely, Henry recommends running the water for a while before drinking. If people for any reason think they aren’t getting clean water, they should call their water utility, Henry said. If the utility is not responsive, the customer should contact DEQ.
LEAD LEVELS DROP AS CLEANUP PROCEEDS
The Idaho Panhandle Health District has been testing and monitoring children since the 1980s. As the cleanup has progressed, the levels of lead in the blood of Silver Valley children have dropped.
The test is administered at the end of the summer, when children playing outside in the still-contaminated landscape would have the highest dose. A sample of 100 children between 6 months and 9 years old are tested. Of that sample last summer, six Silver Valley children tested above 5 micrograms.
Kids who test above 5 micrograms are offered free consultations to help them and their families learn to reduce contamination.
In 1983, 25 percent of Silver Valley children had blood levels of lead higher than 25 micrograms.
“Today, blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter are rare,” said Andy Helkey, Panhandle Health District’s manager of its lead-intervention program.
Helkey attributes the reduction in lead blood levels in the Silver Valley not just to the cleanup of local yards and public places, but also to parents taking precautions to avoid lead exposure.
It wasn’t always easy to get families to cooperate.
The mining industry is a major employer even today in the Silver Valley and many people saw the cleanup and the lead-testing program as threats to their livelihoods.
Barbara Miller, who since the 1980s has led the Silver Valley Community Resource Center, a grassroots non-profit pushing for the cleanup, was often demonized in the press and on the streets.
But today the antipathy has died down as the scope of the contamination and health effects have become known. In 2003, her group won a federal court decision ordering Idaho to require lead testing of all children eligible for Medicaid.
Miller said the state still has not complied with the decision and hundreds of children in Shoshone County, the center of the cleanup, still aren’t being tested. Miller’s resource center helps get health services to people like Flory.
But she’s also trying to get the EPA to fund a clinic specifically for those in the valley affected by lead.
“Poisoning is scary, but it’s preventable and once it happens there is a way to help,” Miller said. “You can never stop trying to improve the quality of life.”
CAN’T FORCE PARENTS TO TEST
The challenge for Helkey and state officials is that forcing families to test their children for lead, even if they get Medicaid, is politically impossible. Families in Silver Valley can get a $30 incentive if they come to Panhandle Health District for testing, but even that doesn’t work with all families.
But the furor over Flint has helped their efforts.
“What Flint has kind of done is focus the medical field back on lead, which is a good thing,” Helkey said.
Flory is working with Miller on the clinic while seeking care for his personal ailments that have gotten worse over the years. Flory understands and shares the community’s loyalty to the mining industry: His father, Ronald, was a miner who survived the Sunshine Mine Fire in 1972 that killed 91 miners.
He knows getting people to seek treatment isn’t always easy.
“It’s really hard for somebody who has been exposed to come forward and say they’re leaded,” Flory said. “I know how they feel.”
What is lead poisoning?
Lead poisoning occurs when a person absorbs too much lead by breathing air or swallowing a substance that contains lead, where it’s from paint, dust, water or food. Lead can damage almost every organ system.
In children, too much lead in the body can cause lasting problems with growth and development. These can affect behavior, hearing and learning and can slow the child’s growth. Children tend to show signs of severe lead toxicity at lower levels than adults.
In adults, lead poisoning can damage the brain and nervous system, the stomach, and the kidneys. It can also cause high blood pressure and other health problems such as depression.
How do I get a lead blood test for my children?
Go to your doctor. Children eligible for Medicaid are eligible to receive a screening test free. Some people may have a small co-pay.
What if I suspect problems with my water?
Call your utility. If unsatisfied with that response, call DEQ’s regional office at 208-373-0550 or email Brandon.Lowder@deq.idaho.gov
Have it tested yourself
Analytical Laboratories, 1804 N 33rd St., Boise, is one of the private labs that will test samples of water in Boise: 208-342-5515
What about our schools?
▪ Boise schools get city water, do not test for lead and have had no complaints about lead problems.
▪ Most West Ada schools get city water and do not test independently; Mary McPherson Elementary on East Amity Road has a district-owned well that is tested annually. Older schools with copper pipes and possibly leaded solder, including Eagle, Ustick and Meridian elementaries and parts of Meridian Middle School, were replumbed a decade ago.
Here’s what Dennis McLerran, DEQ Region 10 administrator, told the Statesman about Silver Valley lead cleanup efforts:
We consider the work we’ve done with the State of Idaho to protect people’s health in the Silver Valley to be our biggest success story in the state. And in terms of large-scale, Superfund-led mine cleanups, EPA considers it one of the best, most successful cleanups in the nation.
The metrics are worth noting: Today, blood lead levels in children have fallen from some of the highest our country has ever seen to at or below national averages; over 7,000 properties have been cleaned up, almost 70 miles of roads have been paved and repaired; the hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of toxic waste from these areas are now isolated in repositories; dozens of drainage projects have been completed in communities to protect the properties that have been cleaned up; many acres of hillsides have been replanted and are green for the first time in decades; and work has begun to protect water quality at historic mines and mills that dot the watershed.
By any yardstick, the cleanup work of the last 20-plus years has made the people of the Silver Valley significantly safer.
That said, much work remains, especially in the Lower Basin. And as the yard cleanup program draws to a close, we need to redouble our efforts to improve water quality and address lead exposure risks in recreational areas.
We are proud of our success, but remain committed to protecting people, the environment and the cleanup, and doing everything in our power to make the Silver Valley a safer, healthier place to live, work and play.