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Riding His Time: Bicycle Bill shows off his pedal-powered home.


Pedal Powered

For bicycle mechanic Bicycle Bill, riding a stationary bike isn't just exercise--it's a way of life. Bicycle Bill lives downtown in a pedal-powered home he designed and built himself. The structure, which is 15 feet long, 3 feet wide and 8 feet high, can travel at 3 to 4 miles per hour but has been parked all summer at the Hub for Sustainable Transportation on Walnut Avenue, where Bicycle Bill fixes bikes.

Bills points out that all the electrical devices in his home could be powered by a stationary bicycle hooked up to an electric generator--although his home is currently power by converted energy from candles.

Before he moved to Santa Cruz, Bicycle Bill had already built more than seven pedal-powered vehicles. His favorite, "The Spirit of Bucky Fuller" (named after the fuel-efficient car Buckminster Fuller invented in the 1930s), could travel across the city of Sacramento in 30 minutes. Creating a "body shell" for Bucky gave it better aerodynamics and doubled its speed, Bill explains.

But Bicycle Bill's work these days is no longer focused on speed. He would rather spend time teaching people what he has learned from 19 years of experience designing and building pedal-powered vehicles. He provides weekly bike-maintenance classes at the Hub's Bike Church for a group of middle-school students on Mondays, and he fixes bikes at the church Monday through Thursday from 3pm to 7pm.

Bicycle Bill hopes to promote pedal-powered homes in Santa Cruz as an affordable alternative to conventional housing. He figures that spreading the word would be a good way to get the homeless off the street. "There are other alternatives besides ordinary housing when you're cheated out of the [housing] market," Bill says. "Your best bet would be to build yourself a pedal-powered house."

But the dilemma for pedal-powered homeowners in Santa Cruz is finding a place to park their rolling residences. Bicycle Bill needs a new parking space. If you would like to learn more about pedal-powered homes, or if you have a space for rent, you can visit Bicycle Bill at the Hub at 224 Walnut Ave., Santa Cruz, or call 425.0665.

Heavy Metal

California's abandoned mercury mines have been a major source of pollution for years. Until recently, the mines themselves were thought to be the main source of mercury, but a recent study by UCSC researchers suggests that the piles of tailings surrounding the mines actually produce higher levels of the toxic metal. According to Russell Flegal, chair of environmental toxicology at UCSC, the study will have tremendous effects on how abandoned mercury mines are dealt with.

"They used to just plug up a mine's opening," Flegal says, "but this study shows that it's really a much more difficult problem to solve. There are mountains of processed ore out there that are exposed to the environment, and it's a much more difficult task to enclose them than it is the mine shafts themselves."

Published in a recent issue of the Environmental Science and Technology Journal, the study was conducted at the New Idria mercury mine, east of Hollister in San Benito county near Pinnacles National Monument. New Idria is one of dozens of inoperative mercury mines in California's coast ranges. New Idria was the second largest producer of mercury in North America from 1854 to 1972. The rust-colored San Carlos Creek flows northward from the mine, eventually draining into the Mendota Wildlife Refuge. Mercury from the creek also makes its way into the San Joaquin River, which empties into the San Francisco Bay.

"The mercury concentrations in the acid mine drainage were comparable to concentrations upstream from the mine," says Priya Ganguli, the environmental specialist with the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board who authored the study while still a graduate student at UCSC. "But downstream from the mine, near the calcine deposits in the piles of tailings, the concentrations were much higher."

Ganguli says they have a working hypothesis, but more studies need to be done. There are no studies, for example, that determine the level of mercury concentrations in fish caught in the reservoir into which the San Carlos Creek flows.

Studies do show, however, that mercury can travel vast distances through the atmosphere, passing from soil to air to water. Water can carry metals for hundreds of kilometers. But according to Ganguli the amount of mercury that reaches the Bay from New Idria is insignificant compared to mercury from sources like the New Almaden mine in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

From 1850 to 1976, the 3,750-acre New Almaden mine produced more than 74 million pounds of mercury, making it the largest mercury mine in North America. "Mercury sediments have been found along the nearby Guadalupe Creek, all the way to the Alviso Slough, which drains into the bay 25 miles away," says Khalil Abu-Saba, also a UCSC graduate and environmental specialist for the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board. According to Abu-Saba, the New Almaden mine is the biggest continual source of mercury in the bay.

"The most urgent thing that we recommend is stabilization of the mine tailings in the upper watershed, through erosion control such as revegetation," says Abu-Saba, a co-author of the New Idria study. "There are piles of waste rock and mine tailings that have creeks running right through them. We need to move the waste rock away from active streams and stop it at the source."

Preliminary studies from other mine sites suggest similar findings. These mines are considered the primary source of mercury pollution in bodies of water such as the San Francisco Bay. In recent years, the bay has consistently exceeded water quality standards for methylmercury, a potent developmental neurotoxin and mercury's most lethal form. When inorganic mercury enters the food chain through plankton, it "bioaccumulates" in fish, which end up with high concentrations in their tissues. Recently, mercury pollution has prompted California health officials to issue fish consumption advisories for more than a dozen bodies of water in the state.

"The biggest concern in the U.S. is that in children exposed to high levels, mercury severely limits mental development and can cause mental retardation," says Flegal. In addition to neurological damage, methylmercury can cause blindness, deafness and intestinal malfunction.

This most toxic of natural metals played a leading role in the gold rush. Quicksilver, as it was called, was used to extract gold from stream gravel and rock. When mercury's toxicity was acknowledged in the 1970s, California's 100-plus mercury mines--many near waterways and residential communities--were abandoned.

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From the November 22-29, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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