map of the mines of silver valley

The Stigma of Superfund

The industrial heart of the Silver Valley became a Superfund site in 1983. The 21 square mile area, called the Box, encompasses the Bunker Hill complex, and the towns of Kellogg, Wardner, Smelterville and Pinehurst.

mining waste waterThe Environmental Protection Agency decided to take charge in the industrial complexes, like the smelter and zinc plant. The state of Idaho took the lead in the populated areas. For the most part, the cleanup efforts in the Box have gone well, and cooperation between EPA and the State of Idaho has been good. Those cleanup efforts are almost finished.

EPA has since expanded its Superfund cleanup to include contaminated areas throughout the Coeur d'Alene River Basin. Currently their plans call for cleaning up an area more than 150 miles long, at a cost of more than $350 million. EPA officials believe cleanup will take approximately thirty years.

The expansion of the Superfund site from the original 21 square miles has been controversial, with many Idaho political leaders believing it is unnecessary. However, a 2005 report by the National Academy of Sciences defended the Superfund expansion, calling the EPA's science "generally sound," proposing more blood lead testing for young children, and suggesting that the cleanup would take longer than thirty years.

What is a Superfund site?

sign telling people how to protect their health by washing their hands and not playing in areas with high lead content Technically speaking, a Superfund site is any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment.

Over the years, Superfund has had to respond not only to the overturned truck that is spilling hazardous wastes; it has also had to learn to deal with basin-wide contamination that can stretch for miles.

Superfund was created in 1980, when Congress enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). This law created a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries and allowed the Federal government to respond to releases or potential releases of hazardous wastes that might harm people or the environment. The tax went to a Trust Fund for cleaning up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.

But the Trust Fund is depleted and American taxpayers -- not the polluters -- are having to pick up the tab for the hundreds of Superfund sites around the country.