MAC: Mines and Communities

Lead contamination kills swans, keeps children inside

Published by MAC on 2006-03-19

Lead contamination kills swans, keeps children inside

by SUSAN GORDON; The News Tribune,

19th March 2006

COEUR D'ALENE, IDAHO - The long, sleek necks that give tundra swans their regal bearing also make them miserable, at least in the Coeur d'Alene River basin, where hundreds die annually.

Tundra swans are the most visible victims of the heavy metal contamination that taints the basin, which stretches 166 miles from Spokane across the Idaho Panhandle to Montana.

The swans nibble on stems, roots and tubers that grow in the basin's shallow lakes and marshes. The birds are quickly overcome by lead in the submerged sediments.

"Their entire digestive system shuts down and they starve," said Dan Audet, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service wildlife biologist who has watched the helpless birds gasp. "It's very unpleasant to see."

Asarco no longer does business in North Idaho. But the company shares liability for environmental damages with other enterprises that exploited the region's rich deposits of silver, lead, zinc and other minerals while leaving tons of toxic waste behind.

The Coeur d'Alene basin is a Superfund megasite, a cleanup so complicated it will take generations to reduce hazards to people and the environment. In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency outlined a $359 million plan for the first 30 years of work. So far, EPA has spent about $30 million. Most of the money has come from taxpayers.

Some 82.5 million tons of contaminated sediment sits on the bottom of Lake Coeur d'Alene. State and tribal health advisories warn anglers to limit fish consumption.

In the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River, mine waste turned the water grayish white. Locals nicknamed it Lead Creek. It wasn't until 1968 that mining companies stopped discharging directly into the river.

In 2005, scientists who reviewed an EPA cleanup plan recommended blood lead-level testing for young children living upstream of Lake Coeur d'Alene.

Many North Idaho mining communities are built on mine waste. Contractors have been digging up yards full of contaminated soil for years.

The EPA's initial cleanup plan includes some swan habitat, but officials have not proposed a remedy for Lake Coeur d'Alene.

Chad Flood, 35, a disabled veteran; his wife, Sarah; and their two small children live in a small trailer in Mullan, near the Montana border where Asarco used to operate a mine. Soil samples showed dangerous levels of contamination in their yard.

Because of the risks, the Floods didn't allow Sarah's son, Matthew, who is 3, out to play last summer. The couple's infant son, Ashton, was too small to enjoy the outdoors.

"I'm definitely concerned about the health of my kids and my wife," Flood said last fall. "The companies that leave these messes behind should be responsible for cleaning them up."

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