Environmental History 
of the Spokane River


Smokestacks are torn down at Bunker Hill, as cleanup of the mining superfund site begins.


Over the years, millions of tons of mine tailings were dumped from the Bunker Hill mine site into Coeur D’Alene Basin which then flowed into the Spokane River. The EPA conducted studies of mining contaminants in the Coeur D’Alene basin, labeled the previous mining site the “Coeur D’Alene Basin Superfund cleanup,” and then began figuring out how to clean the river. The EPA added the Bunker Hill area to the National Priorities List, a list of areas in the United States that are of greatest concern to public health and safety. Bunker Hill was, at one time, the largest smelting facility in the world, and was labeled the second largest contaminated mining site in the nation. A massive project lay ahead, requiring billions of dollars of restoration effort. In 2012, the EPA released its final budget and time period for the cleanup process, totaling about 635 million dollars over the next 30 years.

Superfund map of the Spokane river, showing the Superfund's main focus area and their areas of greatest concern.

Source: http://www.waterplanet.ws/endangeredriver/

The Washington Department of Ecology began by conducting eight cleanup operations, and the EPA helped to conduct one. Nine different spots along the shoreline of the Spokane River were identified as trouble areas that would need cleanup. The Island Complex, Starr Road, Murray Road, and Harvard Road North sites were cleaned first, followed by the Barker Road North, Barker Road South, Flora Road, Myrtle Point, and Island Lagoon sites.

In the cleanup operation, there were several different methods that were used to improve the river’s health and safety. First, there is “digging out,” or removal. This method is simply the physical removal of unsafe materials from the river. Another method is known as “Capping.” Capping is when clean materials are placed over top of unsafe objects that may be stuck in the river to remove the threat that these objects may have on people or the river. The last method of cleanup is making general improvements to the shoreline recreation areas, such as beautification, trash or debris removal, and other actions done to improve the valuable shoreline region.

In the removal process, over 3,000 tons of contaminated materials (polluted mainly by the heavy metals Lead, Arsenic, Zinc, and Cadmium) were removed from the Spokane river at the various cleanup sites. More than 6,000 tons of clean capping materials were placed over contaminated areas of the river, in order to protect people from coming in contact with the harmful metals.

Why we should care

The Spokane River carries water over to the Columbia river, the largest river in the Pacific Northwest that runs all the way to the ocean. The ocean already has an appalling amount of pollution; we do not need the Spokane River to potentially contribute to the problem. The Spokane River is a very popular recreational destination, with activities ranging from fishing, to floating the river, to swimming, and other activities. These recreational activities should be enjoyed without the constant fear of harm from the river itself.

What we can do

A lot of progress was made in cleaning up the heavy metal pollution, yet there is still a long way to go. There are several different organizations working to increase awareness and public involvement in the cleansing of the river; Spokane River Forum, Spokane Riverkeeper, and the Lands Council, to name a few. Showing support in local efforts goes a long way. There is an annual river clean-up day that has been in place for 15 years, recently with over 600 volunteers coming to help remove trash from the shoreline. Keep in touch with news updates about the river, as well as local efforts that are in place to help clean the river, and together we can work to restore the Spokane River.

Spokane River Forum: https://spokaneriver.net
Spokane Riverkeeper: https://www.spokaneriverkeeper.org
The Spokane Lands Council: https://landscouncil.org
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