For years, school children in northern Idaho’s Silver Valley have been warned about the dangers of lead contamination left over from a century of hard-rock mining and smelting.
But several of the valley’s public schools have never been tested to see how much lead dust lurks inside the buildings.
That’s set to change as a result of a judge’s order in March that has local residents debating the need for the tests.
“Personally, I think something should be done every year,” said Jeanie Smith, whose son is a Kellogg High School junior. “My son’s in track. We’ve been down there while that stuff [lead dust] is blowing.”
Smith worries about students at Kellogg Middle School, which is next to the Bunker Hill Superfund site’s 260-acre pile of mine tailings.
Other residents are satisfied with steps the schools already have taken to protect students.
“The attention being paid is reasonable,” said Steve Morley, pastor of the Silver Valley Church of the Nazarene and a parent of a Sunnyside Elementary second-grader. “I don’t see parents going around wringing their hands.”
Idaho 4th District Judge Deborah Bail ruled from Boise that a dozen Silver Valley schools must be tested for lead contamination.
The ruling came at the end of a trial stemming from a lawsuit by 15 Idaho school districts. The complaint alleges the state has not fulfilled its constitutional responsibility to provide all students a safe environment conducive to learning.
Bail ordered safety evaluations at specific schools. She has yet to rule on the constitutional questions in the case.
State lawmakers are trying to agree on a school-funding package that could head off the possibility of a court decision forcing the state to pay to address health and safety problems in school districts that have been unable to raise the cash conventionally.
Bail based her Silver Valley order on experts who testified that children face a health risk because of high concentrations of lead in the soil. Exposure to lead can damage the nervous system.
Environmental cleanup is under way in the valley to deal with contamination from lead and other heavy metals linked to a century of mining operations. Much of the work has focused on limiting residential lead contamination through cleanup in yards and inside homes.
Tests conducted last year by local health officials showed the level of lead in the blood of children living in the heart of the cleanup area was at its lowest in the 12 years tests have been conducted. Only 6 percent of the 370 children tested had lead levels higher than the national health standard.
But the rate was nearly double for children living elsewhere in the Coeur d’Alene River Basin. Ten percent of the 272 children tested had levels above the national standard, up from 9 percent the year before.
Public health nurses use everything from puppet shows to a dollhouse as props to warn the 2,300 students in the Silver Valley’s three school districts about lead.
All schools in the valley conduct a regular cleaning schedule using wet mops and other techniques, said Jerry Cobb of the Panhandle Health District.
It’s unclear where money for school lead testing will come from. It could cost $30,000 to $50,000 to test the valley’s schools, health district and federal officials estimate.
The valley’s school superintendents say they don’t mind submitting schools to testing. But they resent any implication that they’ve been cavalier about student safety.
“We have always placed the health of the children in the Kellogg School District as the highest priority,” Superintendent Greg Godwin said. n