Bunker Hill Mine and Smelting Complex
The late 1880s saw a boom in mining activity in Idaho's Silver Valley as railroad lines were built through what was previously inaccessible wilderness. The Bunker Hill mine, the largest of the Coeur d'Alene area mines, was discovered in 1885 by Noah Kellogg. Initially, the ore was shipped out of the Silver Valley by train for processing; but within a few years, mills had been built on-site to extract the metals from the ore. The process used by the first mills, known as "jigging", was very inefficient, often recovering less than 75% of the metal from the ore. This meant that large amounts of lead and other metals remained in the tailings, which were simply dumped in nearby waterways. A cadmium processing facility was added to the smelter in 1945, which recovered high-grade cadmium from the smelter's waste products.
Bunker Hill, like other mines in the region, was the site of intense struggles between regional miners' unions and mine owners/managers. The owners of the Bunker Hill mine organized with other mine owners to form the Mine Owners Protective Association in order to fight the unions. The Bunker Hill owners repeatedly refused to meet or negotiate with union representatives, leading to regular community protests. On April 29, during a union demonstration, a group of workers hijacked a Union Pacific train in Burke, Idaho and took it to Wardner. After a firefight with the Bunker Hill security guards, they dynamited the Bunker Hill and Sullivan ore concentrator, which was valued at $250,000.
Many of the mine tailings were dumped directly into the Coeur d'Aléne River and its tributaries, which were polluted with high levels of sulfur dioxide, lead, and other metals. The water in the river turned opaque gray, earning the stream the nickname "Lead Creek." An estimated 100 million tons of arsenic, cadmium, and zinc were released into the air, along with 30,000 tons of lead. During the 1970s, when the smelter was still operating, children living in nearby areas began displaying very high blood lead levels. Approximately 26% of the two-year olds in the region had dangerously high levels of lead in their blood.
In 1983, the Bunker hill smelter was added to the National Priorities List by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. As of 2007, the EPA had spent $200 million attempting to remediate the site, much of which was spent removing contaminated topsoil from residential areas.
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- Bunker Hill Mining Company
- Coeur d'Alene, Idaho labor strike of 1892
- Hanford Site
- Lake Coeur d'Alene
- Spokane River
- Western Federation of Miners
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