Domestic mine by Harold Hough

Everyone knows that Hecla Mining is the oldest American precious metals mining company and the largest primary producer of silver in the United States. However, few know of the Hecla Charitable Foundation that has become a major benefactor to the communities in the Idaho panhandle.

Hecla isn’t a newcomer to Idaho. It was founded in Idaho in 1891 by Amasa Campbell, Patsy Clark and John Finch and has become a major part of Idaho’s history, especially its silver mining history. In 1958, Hecla purchased the Lucky Friday silver mine, which opened up in 1942 and still operates over 70 years later.

Given its roots in the community and its position as the Shoshone County, ID second largest employer, it was natural that Hecla would be interested in supporting the small communities of Silver Valley. That’s why they created the Hecla Charitable Foundation (HCF) in 2007, with a donation of over half a million shares of Hecla stock. Over the years, they have acted as a major benefactor to the non-profit organizations of the region. Since HCF began operations, they have contributed over one million dollars in hundreds of different grants.

The contributions haven’t been limited just to the traditional groups like schools. Last year HCF donated to Feline Friends of Wallace Idaho. Feline Friends finds homes for stray cats in addition to spaying or neutering them. The HCF contribution will pay for spaying and neutering the adoptees in 2014. The foundation has also contributed to local school districts and towns so they could hire summer interns.

Repairing Old Environmental Damage and Preventing New Pollution

Having been a major silver producer for the last 120 years also mean that there environmental issues in the area. From the 1880s to the early 1980s, the Silver Valley was the nation’s largest producer of silver, lead, zinc, and other metals. The mining and processing generated large quantities of heavy-metal-related waste materials containing cadmium, arsenic, lead, and zinc.

As part of a settlement with the EPA, Hecla is funding cleanup operations around the Silver Valley waterways. Part of that is the creation of wetlands for migratory, waterfowl and shorebirds. During the next 10 years, the goal is acquire (or use easements when acquisition is not possible) at least 1,000 acres as wetland mitigation for wetland losses in the Lower Coeur d’Alene River Basin.

The concern isn’t just remediating previous damage, but preventing future damage – not from mining – but from development. A growing tourist industry means development and development means buildings, roofs, roads, parking lots and sidewalks which keep rainfall from soaking into the ground and create stormwater runoff.

Under natural conditions, stormwater is able to soak into the soil. However, when water hits these waterproof, manmade surfaces it sheets off, picking up pollutants such as fertilizers, pesticides, petroleum, etc. and then, if channeled into culverts and ditches, goes directly into the waterways and wetlands. Runoff that is not diverted will flow overland and, if uncontrolled, can cause flooding, contaminate wells, and cause erosion. Once stormwater pollutants enter the waterway, they can cause algae growth and decrease dissolved oxygen levels, which damages the ecosystem.

This is where Hecla funding is helping preserve wetlands and waterways from future damage. Scientists have discovered that establishing buffer zones of native vegetation around the shoreline is the most effective and efficient way to reduce runoff, erosion and water pollution. This natural buffer between the water and land contains plants that have deep root systems, do not require fertilizer applications, and can even remove some of the contaminates from the runoff and trap them in their roots. The lack of a vegetative buffer is one of the most significant causes of excessive runoff into the lakes, its rivers, and streams, as well as property loss due to soil erosion.

The result of Hecla’s efforts is that the water quality in and around Silver Valley has dramatically improved since the 1970s. And, even as the region’s tourist business grows, Hecla is committed to making sure that its home for the last 120 years remains as beautiful and pristine as it was when silver was first discovered there.