Amplifying Voices

Western Field Trip, Part 1: A Mile Deep Adventure
by Emily Myron -- May 24th, 2012

So classes are over, Master’s Projects are turned in, exams are finished – now what are you going to do? Go to Disneyworld? No way! You’re headed out to the Pacific Northwest.

Western Field Trip is a very special class at the Nicholas School; it is a chance to travel to the other side of the country and to see some of the natural resource industries we have talked so much about in our classes. Each year, 20 students camp out (yes, sleep on the floor of our beloved LSRC) to get a coveted permission number for this class. After camping out for basketball tickets, this was a breeze! Fortunately, I was one of the 10 lucky second years to get a number, complete with a weeklong trip out West to Eastern Washington, Idaho, and Montana.

After flying into Spokane, Washington, we boarded our 15 passenger vans (lovingly named “The Pip” for our fearless leader, Jeff Pippen, and “Pipsissewa,” a local plant with an awesome name) and drove through Coeur d’Alene into the Silver Valley of Idaho. This is a region that has been mined since the late 1880’s for silver, lead, and zinc, and, while mining operations are significantly cleaner now than they were then, the land and rivers have a legacy of heavy metal runoff.

Below are some pictures from our first fews days (those in the mine are courtesy of Victoria Shelus), followed by small excerpts of our travels.

The EPA and Superfund Sites

Our first stop was a meeting with the EPA to learn about the many superfund sites, including the Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Superfund Site, found in the immediate area. The EPA is faced with cleaning up 68 river miles of contamination, with flood water lead levels as high as 5000 ppm! To date, they have succeeded in cleaning up over 5,800 private properties, removing 3 million cubic yards of contaminated soils, and revegetated 3,200 acres, but their work is far from over.

The Idaho EPA faces some pretty daunting challenges. For example, leftover tailings and abandoned mines are still leaching zinc and lead into the local waterways, making remediation an ongoing process. Additionally, the local people are not hugely supportive of the EPA. In fact, one woman redefined the acronym as the “Enemy of the People of America,” saying that the EPA kills jobs and that lead is not dangerous to humans. It was extremely eye opening for all of us to see what a formidable hurdle garnering public support is in this area, which defines itself through mining.

Visiting a Mine

After staying in Wallace, Idaho (population 920!) for the night, we were excited to get to go visit one of these infamous mines. I am not sure what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t the half dozen, open, passionate, and enthusiastic men that greeted us. After a brief history of the mine and a safety briefing, we donned our hard hats, glasses, and utility belts (go go gadget carbon monoxide converter) and headed for the mine. About 15 of us could fit in the mine elevator at a time – a tight ride for the 6 minutes it took to travel down the 3,000 feet into the mine shaft.

While the ride was cramped, the mine shaft was far larger than I had expected – it could probably fit about 3 of us across. We then spent the next 3 hours exploring the underground world. We saw what the ore (galena, a high grade of lead, and pyrite) looks like, how it is mined, and how it is transported to the exit. We even got to mine some galena off of the walls ourselves!

I was amazed to learn how scientific the process of mining is. We were told that folks must undergo at least 2 years of training before they are allowed to work in the mines. These guys have to be able to read the geology and follow the mineral veins so that they can blast the correct locations to access the ore. They trust one another with their lives as they blast through the rock to get to the ore; they are a family that works together a mile deep in the Earth.

Back above ground, we were taken on a tour of the mine’s processing facility, which they use to separate the ore before it is sent to the smelter. It is a complex process involving lots of large machines, water separation of parts, and some pretty toxic looking chemicals. We also learned that most of the waste from the processing is actually put back into the mines to stabilize the passageways, which cuts down on tailing waste and makes the shafts more safe. Already, only 36 hours into our trip, and we all at least tripled our knowledge of mining.

Having grown up in the suburbs of D.C., industries like mining and timber (which I will discuss in a few posts) are few and far between. It was really enlightening for me to see these industries, which are often criminalized by the media, and to form my own opinions about their practices. I cannot thank the men who spoke so candidly to us at the mine enough for taking the time out of their day to introduce a bunch of environmentalists to their world – it was the highlight of my trip.

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  1. Western Field Trip, Part 3: Adventures in Montana | Emily's Environmental Journey - [...] learning a bit about private natural resource industries through our mine tour, it was time to learn about some…

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