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Burke Canyon

October 16, 2009

Life in the Canyon: More than a Century of Sewage

View photo slideshow from Panhandle Health District

Burke, Idaho is so small that the dead have to be carried out of town because there’s no room for a cemetery. This once-bustling mining town sits wedged in the Bitterroot Mountains and is just three-quarters of a mile long and 300 feet wide.

At its peak in the 1920s, Burke was home to almost 2,500 people. Men came to work in the gold mines, and after those dried up they worked mining silver, lead and zinc. (More than 40 million ounces of silver, 712,049 tons of lead and 36,912 tons of zinc were mined from 1898-1969.

Burke Canyon historical photo

Historical photo showing Burke Canyon.

During Burke’s heyday, shops on the west side of the railroad tracks had to retract their awnings when a train came through. The 150-room Tiger Hotel was built over a creek and over a road. Not only this, but the hotel had a train tunnel running through the middle of it. Of course, having so many people in such a small, isolated location led to bad public health. Canyon Creek was the water fountain, bathtub, and toilet of the town. Outhouses and other buildings were built on stilts over the water, with raw sewage flowing directly into the creek.

In 1991, Burke’s last mine closed. Burke’s mining industry had been in steady decline for years. No new industry had been started in the isolated town so its population declined. In addition, the remote location of Burke also meant a lack of environmental oversight. For example, when the remaining home owners upgraded their outhouses to bathrooms, four inch pipes were installed that carried the untreated sewage directly into the creek. Some people received their drinking water from pipes coming from the old mining shafts. Not surprisingly, levels of metals in Burke’s water supply were 50 times above federal water quality standards. No fish could be found in long stretches of Canyon Creek.

Food dye was used to identify raw sewage reaching the creek

Green food dye was used to find out which buildings were dumping raw sewage directly into the creek.

Conditions reached such proportions that in 2001 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offered to buy out all of the residents, but they refused.  Not only was Burke their home, but they still remembered mine closures caused by EPA regulations.

A year later, the EPA ordered the town of Burke to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act, but with 79 homes remaining in Burke, this would have cost the residents $48,000 per home.The average home value in Burke was $12,000.The citizens of Burke continued to dump up to 6,000 gallons of raw sewage per day into Canyon Creek.

Finally, in 2004, the Panhandle Health District (PHD) approached the Idaho Department of Environmental Equality (DEQ) and Shoshone County Commissioners for help. PHD and DEQ staff began testing each home, using green dye to identify contamination points. They found 30 occupied properties discharging untreated waste.

DEQ secured $220,000 in federal and state funds that Shoshone County distributed to nearly all the affected property owners to help pay installation costs for new septic systems. The project ended in 2007 and has been a great success. "The goal was to get rid of direct discharge without displacing residents," said Dale Peck, director of PHD's Environmental Response and Technology division. "It's a great accomplishment and was only possible through the joint efforts of all the partners. It's a great example of positive collaboration."

Burke Canyon home improvement at work

Home improvement loans, which are unavailable if a home is in violation of the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, were now available to Burke residents.

Not only did the project achieve its goal of improving water quality, it has also assisted property owners. Beyond the public health benefits, these property owners can now get home improvement loans or put their homes on the market—opportunities out of reach for properties in violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

For more information about the changes in Burke, please contact the Panhandle Health District.