Children Run Better Unleaded gives ongoing oversight
By Kaye Hult
Children Run Better Unleaded is one of the community groups—along with federal, state, tribal and industrial groups—helping provide ongoing oversight to ensure completion of remedies to the 1,500-square-mile Bunker Hill Superfund Site that extends 166 miles along rivers and streams from Northern Idaho into Eastern Washington.
Several women who see the impact of lead poisoning on children are carrying on its work.
In 1983, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the U.S.'s largest Superfund Site to clean up contamination from mining and milling silver, lead and zinc beginning in the 1880s. Mines left lead, zinc, silver, cadmium and arsenic toxins in slag piles that entered streams and rivers, blew into yards, homes and parks. The toxins are not only hazardous to fish and waterfowl, but also to the health of people, especially small children and pregnant women.
Children Run Better Unleaded (CRBU) is an outreach of the Silver Valley Community Resource Center (SVCRC).
In 1986, Barbara Miller returned to the Silver Valley, where she grew up, to address the devastation from mining. After exploring needs, she formed and is now executive director of the SVCRC.
Carla Bassemier, a school bus driver and an original volunteer with the SVCRC, recently became active again, teaming up with Betty Belisle, a home health aide, and Gail Rowe, who works with children at the library who joined in February.
They revived the work of Children Run Better Unleaded (CRBU), started in 2005 to address mandated lead testing laws for children exposed to lead.
CRBU educates people about lead exposure and tests people for lead levels.
"Carla sees daily the repercussions of how lead harms children, both in her daughter and in the children riding the school bus," said Gail, who joined in February. "I also see the effects of lead poisoning in children I work with at the library.
Betty, who was also involved in the program's early years, rejoined the committee last fall. She lived in Kellogg from the 1950s through the 1970s.
"We didn't know anything about lead. We just smelled the smoke," she said.
In spring 2021, she wrote on a Facebook page entitled "You know you're from the Silver Valley …." She ended that sentence saying, "… if you know what smelter smoke is."
Other responses included:
• "Most of us who grew up in the area in the 1950s ended up with something wrong with them, mainly lung problems. I have scar tissue in my lungs and have to be careful about colds."
• "I remember my mom hanging sheets out to dry. She forgot them overnight. The next morning they were full of holes from zinc plant smoke."
• "I remember the taste in my mouth walking to school."
• "If smelter smoke killed vegetation, it wasn't a healthy environment."
• "My daughter was born with one kidney."
Many said that "unless you lived there, you have no idea how we lived or what we dealt with as kids or teens in Smelterville, Silver King, Kellogg, Wardner through Wallace and nearby areas. That's the way it was."
Gail and her son, Eli, moved to the Silver Valley in 1991 to be with her parents. Some of her family members died from long-term lead exposure. Her son is affected, too.
According to the Center for Disease Control, lead poisoning in children can damage the brain and nervous system, slowing growth and development. That results in learning, behavior, hearing and speech problems.
"Eli was tested for lead every year," Gail said, "but there was no paperwork. They just told him, 'You're okay. See you next year.' I didn't know what was going on. I realized that the law wasn't followed."
Barbara said no data can be found in Idaho on any children tested for lead since 1974. There's no paper trail.
Through CRBU, Betty learned about lead. She also did research, viewing YouTube videos.
She learned about the pervasiveness of the slag piles. She learned that slag was used to repair roads.
"We had a flood in the early 1970s," she said. "I helped fill sandbags with slag. Later, we found out how terrible that practice was."
A video told of families realizing their children weren't developing well mentally. They saw other families experiencing the same problems and requested help, but never received it.
"I learned that money was doled out to test houses for lead and clean up the land. The houses were not remediated," Betty said. "There is no mental health help other than Medicaid."
Betty and Gail are distressed that the EPA decided in 2016 to locate a waste repository in lower Burke Canyon above Wallace. Barbara said few people know it exists.
"It's right next to a low-income housing development," said Gail. "Children live across the street from the repository. There is just a sign saying, 'Do Not Enter'."
"There's a sandy area where children play," said Betty. "Just beyond that area is the repository. When the area was tested for lead, they found more than 16,000 micrograms per million. Eight micrograms is the current 'acceptable' level. No lead is the actual acceptable level.
"I joined CRBU because I want to see regular testing and offer help with follow-up on medical care," she said. "Families need help with their children. They need family support systems and a local clinic that they will not be afraid to visit."
Betty thinks few people know about lead poisoning. She only learned of it because of her own research.
"We have a beautiful area, but it's filled with waste dumps and repositories beside housing and schools," said Betty, who believes Panhandle Health should inform new families with children so they find housing away from contaminated areas.
Gail also seeks to inform people on issues and to work for improvements.
"Awareness for children living here today is important," she said. "We can help make a difference by communicating with people, sharing resources and answering people's questions about their own health."
In 1992, community members identified the need for a Community Lead Health Clinic/Center. By 1996, Barbara had a design.
SVCRC has taken the request for the health center to the EPA 20 times, said Barbara, who also seeks help from the Coeur d'Alene Tribe. In 2005, SVCRC began its own health program with the help of Bob and Jeri McCroskey, who donated a van. That's when it formed CRBU.
The original project was to work with seven children in three families. They did the testing. When testers found elevated lead levels, they followed up with the children and families to identify the source of exposure, moved families into other housing, offered medical referrals and monitored the children. Money for that project ran out. So CRBU writes grants for education.
"We have to continue to educate parents," said Barbara. "We can refer to a list of medical people. The community still seeks funds to build the lead health center."
Gail said the library, Head Start and day care offer families education on the need for testing.
"I'm angry we are still in this mess," Betty said. "I hope with CRBU, we can draw help, clean houses inside and remove toxic waste repositories. If we had a lead health clinic, we would help children and families. There should be a mandate for money to come from the EPA. They should be accountable.
"I grew up in a good neighborhood. Neighbors helped us because my dad was paraplegic," she added. "I decided to give back to my community because my neighbors' actions showed me that's what one should do."
"Children are our future. We need to make sure they're taken care of," Betty said.
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