PONDERAY — Cleanup of the Black Rock area can move forward thanks to an $840,000 brownfield multipurpose grant received by the city earlier this summer.
The grant, which was announced originally announced by the Environmental Protection Agency in June, will allow the city to complete cleanup of the area at the north end of the Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail, Idaho Department of Environment Quality brownfield analyst Steve Gill. The state’s brownfield program operates under an EPA federal grant, known as the State Response Grant Program.
“It’s a big deal,” Gill said.
The multipurpose brownfields grant will allow the city to conduct environmental site assessments as well as clean-up of the Panhandle Smelting and Refining Co. site on Lake Pend Oreille. The site is perhaps known as Black Rock because of the distinct mound of slag, the glass-like byproduct of the smelting processes dating back to the early 1900s.
The site consists of ruins of the smelter, a pile of unprocessed ore and a large slag dump that extends into the lake, according to Idaho Department of Environmental Quality records.
Panhandle Smelting and Refining Company built the three processing roasters in 1904 to serve the needs of Silver Valley silver mine owners. Before this, ore was shipped hundreds of miles by rail to be processed by ASARCO. Wanting more control over processed ore — and subsequent profits — Silver Valley mine owners thought the area along Lake Pend Oreille seemed a natural receptacle for smelting waste products.
The smelter operation was soon beset by a continuum of lawsuits that ran through 1910 and Panhandle Smelting closed permanently in 1913 due foreclosure proceedings, according to Gill.
It took salvage crews another nine years to dismantle the smelter and scrape up as much of the salvageable material as they could, he added.
The grant award is among 10 multipurpose grants and 150 overall grants totaling a combined $64 million in EPA brownfields funding in the Inland and Pacific Northwest. A brownfields property is a parcel for which expansion, redevelopment or reuse is hampered because of hazardous pollutants or contamination.
Brownfields are most often associated with city and county lands used for industry over prolonged periods, Gill said. The Coeur d’Alene Resort and Golf Club was at one time a brownfield as was the Atlas Mill property along the Coeur d’Alene River.
The funds will be distributed over a five-year period, beginning Oct. 1 and continuing through Sept. 30, 2024. Only 10 such grants were awarded this year, including the one awarded to Ponderay.
Ponderay officials, including Mayor Steve Geiger, the city’s land use planner Erik Brubaker and city planner Kayleigh Miller, should be recognized for the key role they played in Ponderay being selected for the grant.
Preliminary assessment of the site was conducted by state officials in 2005 and led to a $650,000 grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2007. That Brownfields Assessment Coalition Grant — awarded to Ponderay, Kootenai, Sandpoint and Bonner County — funded a more stringent analysis of properties along the shoreline, including Black Rock.
Assessments completed under that grant isolated five zones on 19 properties along the shoreline. Each zone, according to Gill, showed different levels of contamination.
Some, like the Humbird Mill site in Zone 1, had no notable contamination at all. However, others like Zone 4, which included the old Panhandle Smelting site, had the highest levels of contamination as predicted.
Contaminated soils will have to be dug up and deposited in a repository, possibly onsite if that’s deemed to be the safest option, according to Gill. An onsite repository is designed to contain any toxic influence into perpetuity and materials used as liner and capping prevent further negative influence from the contaminated soils.
A properly designed repository contains the toxicity of waste materials permanently, said Gill, adding that containing onsite is quite often better than transporting toxic waste to an offsite location elsewhere. The hotter the contamination, the less desirable it is to haul it over highways.
“If the science proves that we can build a repository on site, we will,” he added.
Once the site is cleaned up, Ponderay officials hope to convert the area as a city park, said Brubaker, the project’s director.
Gill said he often cites the Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail as an example of revitalization funding and accomplishment. From Boston to Philadelphia to New Orleans and Atlanta, the story of the development of the trail and its lasting beneficial effect on the region “is a classic example of cooperative success,” he said.
Following long-held vision of Ross and Hazel Hall Sr., initial owners of a large section of property in the area, the trail was established in 2006. The trail was part of a cooperative effort by the cities of Sandpoint, Ponderay and Kootenai — plus the Army Corps of Engineers and the Burlington Santa Fe Railway Company — as well as several private citizens. Bonner County and the Montana Railway also had a hand in this effort, as did the Idaho Conservation League.
Another very important player in the development and subsequent management of this lakeside trail is the non-profit organized as the Friends of Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail, established in 2008.
In June, Friends of the Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail expressed appreciation that the city had received the grant, noting the competitive nature for the funding.
“I understand those grants were very competitive, so this is huge for the city of Ponderay and means that now we can start looking at how to extend the trail further up along the shoreline,” Susan Drumheller, president of the Friends of Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail said at the time.
Feature correspondent Dwayne Parsons can be reached for comment or story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.