KELLOGG, Idaho—In March, NELC Litigation Director Chuck Caldart wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) expressing concern over long standing toxic metal contamination at the Bunker Hill Superfund Site in Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene River Basin, and urging the government to make the site an immediate priority.

More than 100 years of mining and milling practices spread heavy metals, including lead, mercury, and copper, throughout much of the region’s soil, groundwater, and surface water. Despite the Environmental Protection Agency’s designating the area as a National Priorities List Superfund site almost 40 years ago, the contamination is so widespread that residents still live in perpetual danger of exposure to these metals. The pervasive nature of this public health threat is seen in children who consistently show blood lead levels dangerously above the national average.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calculates a blood lead “reference value” to identify children with high levels of lead in their blood. The level is based on the 97.5th percentile of the blood lead values among U.S. children ages 1 through 5—meaning only 2.5% of all children in the country have a blood lead level (BLL) at or above the reference level. As of 2021, that CDC reference value is 3.5 micrograms of lead per deciliter (ug/dL) of blood. The average BLL of children tested in the Coeur d’Alene River Basin was precisely 3.5 ug/dL in 2020, and numbers ranged from 2.4 to 4.3 ug/dL over the previous 10 years, indicating that Bunker Hill children are consistently among the most heavily
exposed to lead in the nation.

The EPA appears to acknowledge the severity of this problem, but the agency’s published health guidance for the area places much of the burden of reducing lead exposure on Basin residents themselves. To minimize lead contamination in their homes, residents are advised to avoid areas with “bare dirt,” to rinse or dust off clothes after venturing outdoors, and to wash pets who have played in the dirt or river. Not only are these suggestions impossible to apply consistently, but they are also “band aid” measures that largely serve to illustrate just how far the EPA is from actually solving the problem.

The Silver Valley Community Resource Center (SVCRC), a local nonprofit dedicated to fighting lead contamination in the Coeur d’Alene River Basin, initially reached out to NELC asking for support in speeding up the cleanup process. Our letter to the DOJ expressed support for SVCRC’s aim to establish a community lead health center as a resource that could significantly improve access to lead health testing and services in the region. The hope is that our letter will serve as a push for state and federal agencies to redouble efforts to protect the environment and public health in these historic Northern Idaho communities.