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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 24th June 2016 > WE ARE ‘THE LEADED’


Thirty years after being declared a Superfund site, the Bunker Hill mining complex is still a toxic mess that has destroyed residents


“THIS PLACE STUNK SO BAD,” says Paul Flory, “and you had that metal taste in your teeth.”

Flory was born in 1970 and grew up in the same part of the country he lives in today: the Coeur d’Alene River Basin of northern Idaho. Beginning in the 1880s and for more than a century, locals have mined this region — also called the Silver Valley — for its abundance of silver, lead and zinc. Some residents can trace their ancestors in the valley back six generations, and “Uncle Bunker” — Bunker Hill, the large mining complex there — was the hand that fed them through all those years.

But it was also slowly poisoning them. As a teenager, Flory attended Silver King School, built in 1928 in the gulch between the Bunker Hill lead smelter and zinc plant. An offshoot of the Coeur d’Alene River flowed by the school; it was, says Flory, a “light, glowing green color”— sort of like a glow stick. In 1973, a fire broke out at Bunker Hill and destroyed part of the baghouse — the main pollution-control system for the lead smelter. For the next year and a half, the smelter continued to operate, and dust polluted with heavy metals rained down on the area.

During that time, children living in the area were screened for lead by the state and U.S. Center for Disease Control, and the results were foreboding. Children in Kellogg, for example, averaged 50 micrograms per deciliter of blood; the CDC considers 5 micrograms high enough to warrant concern, and children with levels above 45 micrograms are advised to undergo chelation therapy, which involves administering compounds like dimercaptosuccinic acid, either orally or intravenously, to remove heavy metals from the bloodstream. Lead is a neurotoxin linked to schizophrenia, poor academic performance, low cognitive ability and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Once the metal gets into the blood, it concentrates in the brain, kidneys, liver and bones; in pregnant women, lead can cross into the placenta, poisoning their unborn babies.

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