Sunday, July 28, 2002


Superfund's silver lining
The EPA cleanup hasn't been all bad for Kellogg. Superfund jobs have helped employment, and now there are signs of an economic rebound
Related stories

Karen Dorn Steele
Staff writer

Christopher Anderson - The Spokesman-Review
James Reed, 6, enjoys a day at the Kellogg pool with his brother and mother earlier this month. The family recently moved to Pinehurst from Pennsylvania.

The city of Kellogg can thank the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for $10,000 worth of new computers at local schools and libraries.

It also got a $230,000 greenbelt, $542,000 in street maintenance money and $17 million in flood control and street projects -- all courtesy of the federal government.

The spending may not ease the resentment many Silver Valley residents feel toward the EPA and its massive Superfund cleanup of old mining wastes.

But some Kellogg residents say the cleanup has left their town ready for growth after two decades of bad economic news.

Small businesses and a nascent tourist industry are emerging. A new industrial park west of town has one major tenant and awaits others. And EPA is poised to return 1,600 acres to Idaho for other development, including a resort-style golf course.

"Three years ago, it was bad," said Mike Domy, the owner of Excelsior Cycle and a former Kellogg city councilman. "But business has picked up a lot
, and people are moving here."

Indeed, Shoshone County unemployment improved slightly this year. Unemployment in March stood at 10.8 percent, compared to 12.5 percent a year ago.

Kellogg and four other small towns have benefited from $77 million in jobs and community improvements as a direct spinoff from Superfund, says a recent report to Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

Of that total, $42 million went to hire local people during the cleanup, says Chuck Moss, Idaho's Superfund point man in Boise.

Some 600 contractors worked the Superfund job, from hydroseeders in helicopters to demolition experts who crushed and buried hundreds of old buildings.

"Eighty-five to 90 percent of the labor force has been local," said Cami Grandinetti, the EPA's Bunker Hill project manager.

That's not to say that Kellogg's economy is roaring back to its mining heyday. It still suffers from the loss of 2,100 jobs provided by Bunker Hill, the defunct mining and smelting company old-timers call Uncle Bunker.

When the company closed in 1981, 80 percent of the city's tax base disappeared.

Storefronts in Kellogg's Alpine-themed downtown sit empty. People who stay often commute long distances for jobs. Shoshone County is the fifth poorest in Idaho.

But EPA has been a godsend amidst the economic carnage, says Barbara Miller, a local activist who has fought for more cleanup, not less.

"Superfund is the only viable economic development this town has seen since 1981. When the community is finally given a clean bill of health, the potential here will be endless," Miller said.

This fall, Kellogg will get back one of its main drags, McKinley Avenue, with federal money to maintain it. The western end of the road to Smelterville has been blocked off by the cleanup project for over a decade.

"At the beginning, Superfund was the Mark of the Beast," said Jerry Cobb, Panhandle Health District director. "But we've beat it."

Keeping the banks happy:

Key to Kellogg's revival is a little-known initiative called the Institutional Control Program.

The program, run by Cobb, maintains a database that shows lead contamination levels on every property within the Superfund site, and whether it has been cleaned.

The documentation allows houses to change hands and remediated property to be sold for development.

When EPA first came to Kellogg in 1983, Superfund was new and banks and mortgage insurers were skittish. They didn't want to loan money for projects within a Superfund site.

The Institutional Control Program "was designed to keep the banks happy," Cobb said, by documenting where cleanup has occurred.

The program makes 300 property disclosures a year to people seeking to buy. It also licenses contractors, who must get permits and training before they dig anywhere within the site.

The program has been central to attracting new businesses to Kellogg -- including McDonald's, Subway, a Motel 8 serving the Silver Mountain resort ski crowd, and the TSI Call Center, with 50 telemarketing jobs.

The call center is the first tenant of a 40-acre business park near Smelterville. EPA contributed $950,000 toward road construction, paving and a storm drain system within the park.

The new buildings and parking lots form barriers against polluted soils. Dirt parking lots are no longer allowed in Kellogg.

Area mining companies are paying the $135,000 annual costs of the control program.

Good money in cleanup:

Rich Nearing worked 27 years at Bunker Hill's zinc plant, supervising 140 people before the plant closed 20 years ago on a day he still calls "black Friday." He now collects a $450-a-month pension for his labor.

In 1995, he went to work for EPA contractor Morrison-Knudsen to help clean up after his old employer. His pension after five years on the Superfund site: $650 a month.

Workers like Nearing, a Silver Valley native, benefited from a federal law called the Davis-Bacon Act that requires companies to pay union-scale prevailing wages at any Superfund site where EPA is paying the bills.

Laborers and teamsters were paid between $22 and $30 an hour. They also got union medical and pension benefits and hazardous waste training.

Heavy equipment operators called operating engineers also shared in the good wages and benefits.

"For four years, there was good money to be made on cleanup at Bunker Hill," said Mel Thoresen, a former organizer with the Spokane-based Operating Engineers Local 370.

Nearing became a member of Local 238, the Spokane and North Idaho chapter of the Laborer's International Union. "I wish I'd been with that union all these years," said Nearing, who is 66.

Not everyone working on cleanup got the top wages.

Thoresen's union filed a Davis-Bacon wage complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor against a non-union subcontractor, CJS Excavating Inc. of Post Falls.

CJS failed to pay its workers the required $30 an hour for hauling topsoil to the Bunker Hill project's main waste dump, and instead paid $14 an hour, according to the complaint.

The Labor Department upheld the complaint and sought $46,977 in back wages from the subcontractor, government records show. CJS went bankrupt last year, so the back pay is being collected from a Superfund performance bond, Grandinetti says.

Workers doing cleanup paid directly by Union Pacific Railroad and the mining companies earned $8 to $14 an hour on average.

"You could be working alongside them. They are the same quality of people with one-third the pay," Nearing said.

"There's no obligation for private companies to pay Davis-Bacon wages," said Chris Pfahl of Asarco, who keeps the books for the mining companies' private cleanup of polluted yards within the Bunker Hill site.

"EPA was paying Seattle-scale wages in the Silver Valley. It's absurd," Pfahl said.

Labor costs are a big part of why EPA-led Superfund projects cost four to five times more than privately-run cleanups, says Laura Skaer of the Northwest Mining Association in Spokane.

"It's great if you're a laborer," Skaer said. "But if you're a mining company and you're on the paying end of that -- or if you're a taxpayer -- it's not so good."

But more than 500 men and women in the Silver Valley would like to see those union-scale wages continue when EPA moves ahead with an expanded cleanup throughout the Coeur d'Alene Basin.

They've signed petitions calling on the state and EPA to do the work under a Project Labor Agreement, guaranteeing local hires, top wages and benefits.

'Kellogg a young `Telluride'

Dana Musick of Dallas was driving through on Interstate 90 five years ago when she spotted an elegant, two-story house on a hill.

Recently divorced, the former banker said she'd always wanted to own a bed and breakfast. She bought the mansion on the spot. It sits on land originally homesteaded by town namesake Noah Kellogg, who discovered the Bunker Hill lode in 1885.

Musick named her B and B The Mansion on the Hill, remodeled it and opened for business three years ago. Her first guests were the twin daughters of John and Dorothy George, a Kellogg mining family that restored the home in 1944.

Musick says that out-of-staters like her are buying up Kellogg's inexpensive houses for use as vacation homes or quiet places to settle down.

"Kellogg is a young Telluride," she said. "It's very exciting."

Domy agrees.

His bike shop is in a rustic log building on the new Union Pacific bike trail -- another cleanup project. Domy rents bikes to tourists eager to tackle the Hiawatha Trail near Wallace or the UP trail, a 72-mile route that runs from Mullan to Harrison. He also sells bike components over the Internet.

Domy's neighbor, Ed Renke, is a retired Hanford engineer who bought his house as a ski getaway, retired, and has lived in Kellogg full-time since 1996.

Since buying the mansion, Musick has invested nearly $1 million in Kellogg. She's remodeled two cottages behind the home for more guests and leased out an adjacent house for a beauty salon and day spa. In January, she opened the Veranda Restaurant nearby.

She's also leased the former train depot from the city of Kellogg and is remodeling it for use by the Kellogg Chamber of Commerce. A museum and an ice cream and coffee shop will share space in the building.

"The EPA did what it needed to do -- clean the place up," she said. "It's time for them to move on and get the town active again."

Small businesses needed

Tourism isn't the sole answer for the Silver Valley because the jobs don't pay enough, Nearing says.

Former miners go to extraordinary lengths to stay in the area because of its mountains and streams. Some commute to the Stillwater Mine in Montana. Others drive to Coeur d'Alene for work, or struggle to launch businesses from home.

Kellogg is trying to attract small businesses with 10 to 20 employees, says Kellogg Mayor Mac Pooler, the grandson of a Welsh coal miner who came to Idaho to work in the mines.

"We aren't going to get Boeing, but we need more companies. We have a lot to offer," Pooler said.

Kellogg's biggest private employers include Dave Smith Motors with 250 people and Silver Mountain, with 300 jobs in the winter and 15 to 75 jobs in the summer.

Former Bunker Hill workers have launched several smaller businesses, including Mine Fabrication and Machine Inc., with 15 jobs, and Silver Needle, which makes protective clothing and employs 30.

Brenda Stinson, Silver Needle's president, used to make high-heat coats and coveralls used by smelter workers. After losing their jobs when Bunker Hill closed, she and her husband Larry decided to stay. They founded Silver Needle out of their home, working long hours to attract customers.

They moved the growing business from their Cataldo farm to Kellogg in 1986. The company has an Internet site and sells safety clothing to workplaces, including fire departments and the U.S. Forest Service.

Idaho wants to help with a development plan to attract more business to the area. EPA will transfer 1,600 acres formerly owned by bankrupt Bunker Hill owner Gulf Resources to the state at the end of the cleanup.

The state's first request to EPA for a land transfer will be 485 acres for an 18-hole golf course planned by Eagle Crest Communities, Inc. It's part of a project to expand the Silver Mountain Ski Resort.

The state will consider land transfers, leases and swaps that help the area develop jobs and tax-paying businesses and create public recreational facilities, such as soccer fields, Moss says.

Revenues from the land deals will go into a trust fund to maintain the Bunker Hill site when EPA leaves. The state also plans to help local officials with a variety of infrastructure improvements, including upgrades of area water and sewer districts.

People living near the Superfund site experienced years of uncertainty and disruption, but their community is now a "remediated island" in the Coeur d'Alene Basin, Moss said in his report to Kempthorne.

"It's been an interesting voyage," Mayor Pooler said. "But over the long run, we got the cleanup done. Here we are, looking at the light at the end of the tunnel."

Karen Dorn Steele can be reached at (509) 459-5462 or by e-mail at

Back to Top

  • Printer Friendly
  • E-mail this story


  • Submit a letter to the editor
  • Ask a question at "Ask the Editors"

    Adopt A Pet