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Idaho's Silver Valley Sheds Its Polluted Past
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Idaho's Silver Valley Sheds Its Polluted Past

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Idaho's Silver Valley Sheds Its Polluted Past

Idaho's Silver Valley Sheds Its Polluted Past
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The historical mining towns of Wallace and Kellogg, Idaho — designated "superfund" cleanup sites — have been transformed into resort and recreation destinations. Less than 10 years ago, the Silver Valley was one of the poorest and most polluted places in the state and region.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And talk about change. We're now going to visit a couple of western towns that have succeeded in reinventing themselves. The towns of Wallace and Kellogg in Idaho are on the rebound after decades of depression. Reporter Tom Banse takes us to the Silver Valley, which calls itself the silver capital of the world.

TOM BANSE: An old factory whistle symbolizes the changing times in Kellogg, in the Idaho Panhandle.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLD FACTORY WHISTLE)

BANSE: The whistle is one of the few surviving remnants of a big mine and smelter complex. Smokestacks spewing lead-contaminated fumes once turned the hillsides hemming this valley dead and brown. Now, earthmovers sculpt golf fairways and cul-de-sacs on some of those same slopes. Higher up, a ski area is expanding. It's all part of the Silver Mountain Resort. Neal Scholey sells real estate for the company. He wants to get you in on the ground floor, at the next Northern Rockies boomtown.

NORRIS: Imagine if you had the opportunity to purchase at, we're talking about the golf community here, at a golf community in Vail, in Park City or Sun Valley 15 years ago.

BANSE: The sales pitch is working. Scholey says hundreds of condo units sold out in a matter of days at the ski hill-base village. The twist here is that legacy of mining pollution. This is a Superfund site, isn't it?

NORRIS: Yeah. Or Super-fun, as we like to say.

BANSE: Much of the Silver Valley was declared a Superfund site in 1983. Lead and other toxic metal residues made it a federal priority cleanup. The area is still on the list, but Scholey believes the remaining work has little impact on skiers, golfers, bikers and hikers.

NORRIS: There's been over $200 million invested in the cleanup for the Silver Valley, here. And it's one of the most successful in Superfund history.

BANSE: Not so fast, says the leader of a cleanup advocacy and watchdog group. Barbara Miller argues the EPA still has a ways to go to close off all the pathways for lead exposure.

NORRIS: We believe that there are strong measures of remediation that still need to be in place. There is, there is recontamination. People should be aware. I mean, it doesn't take much.

BANSE: Long-time Kellogg mayor Mac Pooler is amazed how far the Silver Valley has come after its mainstay of mining went kaput.

NORRIS: The cards were stacked against us. Losing the mines to Superfund, I think a lot of areas had thrown their hands up and said, geez, you know. I mean, we had ski hill. We had a little bitty ski hill up there. That's all we had.

BANSE: The mayor identifies two key turning points. One was a vote by the people of Kellogg to tax themselves during the depths of the mining bust in the late '80s. They financed the world's longest gondola. A second turning point came in 1996 when the city sold the gondola and ski hill to that resort developer. Now, just when the reinvention as a year-round recreation destination is taking hold, the area's historic bread and butter is coming back.

The legendary Sunshine Mine is along the way to the next town of Wallace. The owners plan to resume silver production any week now.

The signal bells in the hoist room toll steadily from all the preparatory lifting and lowering. Maintenance manager Brian Higdem says this is just one of roughly a half-dozen underground mines in the area that are reviving.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS)

NORRIS: Silver's the primary ticket here. And good silver prices, people are going back to work, and we are close to about 100 people now at the mine, whereas four years ago, there's about three people here.

BANSE: In the Sunshine ore mill, John Ackerman(ph) looks forward to showing that modern mining and an outdoor recreation economy can co-exist. Expensive new condos aren't for him, but he wants to get along with that set.

NORRIS: You know, any community is better off with a mixture of industry. So if there's the mining, there's tourism. If there could be some other things as well, that adds to the economy and also makes it more stable, more resilient.

BANSE: Ackerman says the environmental rules for mining today are stricter than in the old days. Waste water has to be treated; the ore concentrate now goes to Canada or off-shore for smelting and refining. Once-brown valley hillsides are going back to green, thanks to replanting.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Banse.

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