Looting the Silver Valley
How does an ultra-wealthy financial backer of new British Prime Minister David Cameron connect to the dusty miners in the nearby photo? In a word the connection is – money, and lots of it.
From the 1880’s forward, a narrow valley along the Coeur d’Alene River in far northern Idaho has produced more than a billion ounces of silver, not to mention tons of zinc and lead. Idaho’s Silver Valley at one time produced more than half of the nation’s silver and was the richest mining district in the world.
Like most of the world’s mining districts, the Silver Valley has long been a landscape of equal parts hope and hopelessness. For years, while the mines produced tremendous wealth, the pay was good and the jobs plentiful. Not many worried that the old Bunker Hill smelter was pumping out a vile mixture of lead and other bad stuff that killed off trees and tainted the soil.
As Idaho Public Television noted in an episode on the Silver Valley a while back, lead poisoning – long before the EPA or Superfund legislation – was a serious problem for smelter workers. “One early attempt to cure lead poisoning, called the Clague Process, passed an electric current through a miner’s body while his hands and feet were immersed in water. The Bunker Hill Company hospital used this method for several years, but it ultimately proved totally ineffective.”
In 1973, a fire at the smelter’s bag house removed the protection that had existed preventing high concentrations of lead from getting into the air and, in turn, in the soil, water and blood stream. The Bunker Hill ownership operated the facility for almost a year without adequate filtration in place and that, in part, helps explain why a 21 square mile area of the Valley is now one of the largest Superfund sites in the country.
Now to David Rowland. David Rowland? Who’s he? Rowland is, according to the Daily Mail in London, the man David Cameron has tapped to become the Tory Party treasurer come October. He is also one of the wealthiest men in Britain; a man who apparently dodged UK taxes for some years by living on the Island of Guernsey before resurfacing last year to contribute millions of pounds to the Conservative Party in Britain. It just so happens that Rowland was also once the CEO of Gulf Resources, the company many in the Superfund encumbered Silver Valley of northern Idaho believe looted that company and reneged on clean-up commitments that should have legitimately been his responsibility.
As the newspaper noted in a July 10, 2010 story: “Rowland found himself embroiled in the (Silver Valley clean up) dispute in February 1989 when his UK property company Inoco, which was controlled by a family trust, bought Gulf Resources which took over ownership of the (Bunker Hill) smelter plant.
“He immediately sparked huge political opposition when he attempted to move ownership of some of the company’s assets to the tax haven of Bermuda – which would have prevented them being used to finance the environmental clean-up.
“The move was blocked by the U.S. Justice Department.
“Mr Rowland then, through Gulf, sunk $120 million in a property deal in New Zealand, thus putting those funds beyond the reach of the U.S. authorities.
“Gulf also attempted a hostile takeover of an Australian mining company which would have taken even more money away from the clean-up.”
Former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus was concerned at the time, and still believes today, that Gulf Resources intentionally took money out of the company – by one claim Rowland pocketed $100 million himself – to make sure the money couldn’t find its way into the Silver Valley clean up.
“I think the scoundrels looted the company,” Andrus said recently.
Katherine Aiken, the distinguished and scholarly dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Idaho, is the historical authority on the Silver Valley. Her history of the Bunker Hill – Idaho’s Bunker Hill: The Rise and Fall of a Great Mining Company, 1885-1981 – is required reading for anyone wanting to understand the history and importance of the area.
Dr. Aiken told the Daily Mail: “When Mr. Rowland left Gulf Resources, the money was gone, which is why so many people went to court to try to get some back. People in (Silver Valley) bars curse when David Rowland’s name is mentioned. Gulf Resources was the villain here.”
Rowland denies he or Gulf Resources did anything wrong. They’ll never buy that line in Kellogg or Smelterville.
Perhaps it is true that money can’t buy happiness, but in large enough bundles money can buy a way out of costly troubles and into political connections.
For David Rowland who, anyway you slice it, left a lot of unfinished business in northern Idaho, three million pounds contributed to the British Conservative Party can obviously buy, if not happiness, at least a selective memory regarding his business dealings 20-plus years ago in a place called the Silver Valley.
Rowland’s net worth is estimated at $730 million pounds. Even ten percent of that would go a long way in the Valley.