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Mercury Madness

Quicksilver Park
Metallic Substance: The entrance to Quicksilver Park in New Almaden warns of the toxic mercury mines that remain there. Some environmentalists think the warnings are not enough and that the state's relaxed restrictions on mercury contamination in water will only lead to illness and death.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Local cities fought and won a battle with the EPA to allow higher levels of mercury contamination in California's water, but scientists and activists warn of 'Mad Hatter' syndrome, Minimata disease and poisoned swordfish

By Sarah Phelan

IN THE OAK-STUDDED HILLS of San Jose's Almaden Quicksilver County Park, hikers and joggers puff their way along 29 miles of zigzagging trails, passing grasslands, manzanita-fringed chaparral and occasional remnants of mining structures along the way. These remnants, along with a nearby museum and gift shop, are there because this romantic-sounding recreational area was once the site of one of the largest mercury mines in the West.

Ever since miners swarmed to the frontier in the hope of hitting the mother lode, California has been called the Golden State. But beneath the glitzy surface from the Hollywood Hills to Silicon Valley lies a more onerous landscape--a haunting legacy of abandoned mercury mines.

Mercury--the most toxic of all natural metals--was a key element in the Gold Rush. The freight wagons that rolled into camps back in 1847 didn't merely provide fortune-hungry miners with beef, beans and whiskey--they also supplied thousands of flasks of mercury, used to extract gold from stream gravel and background rock.

As the Gold Rush peaked, eager entrepreneurs built more than 100 mercury mines in California, unwittingly opening a poisonous Pandora's box.

When the federal government recognized the danger and prohibited mercury amalgamation in the early 1970s, these same mines became unprofitable and were abandoned, often in close proximity to waterways, residential communities and recreational facilities.

Meanwhile, more than a million flasks of mercury--74 million pounds--had been extracted from the New Almaden Mining District, which was opened in 1850. As early as 1863, Harper's New Monthly Magazine had already noted dead trees, salivating cattle and polluted water in the area.

Santa Clara County bought all 3,750 acres in 1976, designating the spot as a historical district for educational and recreational use.

In 1982, the county "discovered" mercury contamination in the park. Soon thereafter, the Department of Health Services had the entire property placed on the state's Superfund list and suggested blood tests for area residents. (This latter proposal was withdrawn in the face of public outcry and anger, especially from longtime residents whose families had worked in the mine and who were suspicious of how the test results would be used.)

According to a 1992 risk assessment of the park, mercury contamination was limited to several "hot spots" where mining activity had been the heaviest and where most waste was present. However, given that there are 358 mine openings on a piece of ground six miles across, some activists believe the whole place is unsafe.

The same 1992 study concluded that the biggest threats to human health at Quicksilver Park came from contaminated water and inhalable heavy-metal dust. As a result, officials fenced off the hot spots, built barriers around eroded slopes and waste piles, mounted signs warning of contaminated fish and prohibited bike riding, since it might stir up toxic dust.

Despite these preventive measures, Kathleen Van Velsor, director of the Los Gatos-based Coastal Advocates, questions "whether it's appropriate for people to be recreating in an area designated by the EPA as one of California's Superfund sites."

Heavy Metal Madness

VAN VELSOR IS EVEN more concerned about the damage abandoned mercury mines are causing to the South Bay environment. She says piles of waste left at the New Almaden site have contaminated surrounding streams, which flow into the Guadalupe River through Alviso Slough and drain into south San Francisco Bay, less than 25 miles away. And she criticizes a new EPA proposal to raise the acceptable level of mercury in California's waterways.

Van Velsor isn't alone in her concerns. At a public hearing in San Francisco last week, activists and research scientists expressed discontent with the EPA's proposal, which raises permittable mercury levels 60-fold in surface water and four-fold in drinking water.

That proposal resulted from a legal fight between the state and several "dischargers," including the cities of San Jose, Sunnyvale, Sacramento and Stockton. The cities won a lawsuit by arguing that the state had not sufficiently considered the economic costs of adopting its water-protection laws.

The dischargers complain about the prohibitive expense of treating water in the Bay Area, even with higher levels of mercury allowed. Meanwhile, activists and scientists argue that while the EPA's new criteria might make economic sense, they are environmental madness.

Most of us are familiar with quicksilver--the highly mobile elemental form of mercury which, given half a chance, will race off in little silvery balls. It was this rapid mobility that led this metal to be named after Mercury, the fastest-moving planet in our solar system, which in turn was named for the winged-sandaled messenger of the Roman gods.

These days, mythological explanations have been abandoned in favor of science. Yet scientists are discovering that mercury can be as changeable and fast-moving as its namesake.

"Not all mercury is created equal," explains Khalil Abu-Saba, a graduate geochemist at UC-Santa Cruz, as he demonstrates how mercury that exists in subparts per billion in a stream can "bioaccumulate" in fish until it becomes a human health hazard.

Addressing the public hearing last week, he began by holding up a specimen of cinnabar--a reddish, steak-like slab of ore that local Indians used as a pigment for body paint until they discovered it caused severe skin irritation.

Cinnabar, Abu-Saba explained, is a form of mercury mined during the Gold Rush for the amalgamation process. More than 65 percent of the quicksilver was spilled in that process, he said.

Mercury can travel long distances in the atmosphere. Even worse, once deposited in the soil, mercury can frenetically "grasshopper" between the soil, air and water, in a style worthy of the fleet-footed messenger himself.

But the element's most dangerous attribute is that once released into the environment, inorganic mercury can be converted by bacteria into highly toxic organic methylmercury--which then "bioaccumulates."

The methylmercury, Abu Saba says, is concentrated by plankton at the base of the food chain. When filter feeders consume these plankton, the mercury is further concentrated.

"The process repeats itself over and over in a complex food chain," he says, "with the result that mercury in predator fish ends up one million times higher than that in the surrounding water."

Consequently, eating substantial amounts of tuna or swordfish could leave you as mad as a hatter.

Crazy Cats

ABU-SABA DOESN'T HAVE any organic mercury with him because "it's too toxic to handle safely," he says. Instead, he's brought along the obituary of Karen Wetterhahn, a prominent Dartmouth researcher who died from neurological damage--just three months after she spilled two drops of dimethylmercury onto her latex gloves.

Wetterhahn is only the most recent victim of mercury poisoning. Lewis Carroll's manic Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland fame was modeled on the unfortunate hat-makers of 19th-century England and New York, who developed shakes, slurred speech and manic-depressive behavior after sitting up to their knees in mercury-infused water, shaping felt for 10 hours a day, six days a week.

Today it's no longer hatters who are at occupational risk but fingerprint photographers, dentists, hospital technicians and workers exposed to airborne mercury. But what of the picnickers and joggers in Quicksilver County Park? Are they in greater danger from the clouds of toxic dust swirling around the barbecue pit on a windy day or from the mercury that bioaccumulated in their charbroiled swordfish steaks?

According to the EPA, the biggest danger comes from eating contaminated fish.

So far, the most extensively documented case of mercury poisoning from fish consumption occurred at Minimata Bay, Japan, in the 1950s. People there began to worry when cats started foaming at the mouth and throwing themselves into the sea. Three years later, a 5-year-old girl showed signs of brain damage, including speech problems and delirium. Eventually, researchers discovered methylmercury in seafood tissue, from a local plant's pollution.

Over the next 10 years, 800 people died--mostly children--and another 2,000 people became sick.

Such a scenario isn't likely in California. However, even at sub-lethal levels, methylmercury can cause cerebral palsy, severe neurological damage, gross motor and mental impairment, speech disturbances, blindness, deafness and intestinal problems.

So why would the EPA risk raising mercury levels? The answer may lie in the sight that greets commuters as they drive across the Dumbarton Bridge and look south toward San Jose.

According to the San Francisco Bay Regional Monitoring Program, the southern reaches of San Francisco Bay regularly exceed the EPA's recommended mercury standard. To bring the bay into compliance would cost the city of San Jose, and other municipalities, lots of money. Help could come from Proposition 204, a citizens initiative which committed hundreds of millions of dollars to improving water quality, restoring habitats and protecting commercial and sport fishing in California.

But it would be much cheaper to simply change the numbers and raise the allowable levels.

In arguing to allow that, Abu-Saba says, the EPA is using old, disproven science about bioaccumulation. He also says they are underestimating fish consumption.

The EPA figures that, at most, people eat one ounce of fish per day. People who eat no more than that, then, would still be protected under the more lax rules.

But recent studies show that sport fishermen, and others who fish for food off piers or from boats, eat almost six ounces of fish a day. Since two-thirds of these fishermen are immigrants who have difficulty reading or understanding English, this means that the population most vulnerable to any increase in mercury elevations is also the one least likely to know about it. Not to mention sushi-lovers.

A Sip of Poison

THE EPA'S "ACCEPTABLE" mercury levels for aquatic life are comparable to concentrations found downstream of New Idria, a leaking San Benito County mercury mine nestled in the mountains east of Hollister and close to Pinnacles National Monument.

Once the second-largest producer of mercury in North America, New Idria was abandoned in 1972. Today it's surrounded by mountainous piles of waste and is leaking. "We know that it's leaking," says Abu-Saba, "because we can measure water above and below the mine and see huge differences.

"Downstream, the concentrations clearly exceed current acceptable levels. Yet within the EPA's proposed new criteria, these contaminated levels would be permissible."

Kate and Kemp Woods are benetoite miners who live on the site of the abandoned New Idria Mine. Both are convinced that their health has been adversely affected by the high levels of mercury present in the rust-colored waters of San Carlos Creek.

They have installed an elaborate water-filtration system and avoid drinking the water, but they still bathe in it. Says Kate Woods forthrightly: "It's no fun taking a bath in orange water every night. The EPA is ready to say that what's coming down the creek is acceptable to aquatic life. But it's not acceptable to any form of life!"

Half-jokingly she adds, "Occasionally, I see a frog down there, but I don't look too hard, because it's probably got two heads!" As for Kate and Kemp's dogs, "The ones that have drunk out of the creek have all eventually ended up crawling away and dying," she says.

Recently, Kate Woods says, her extremities felt numb for 10 days straight. She's waiting to get the results from lab tests on hair samples.

Kathleen Van Velsor says that instead of fighting to permit higher levels of mercury in places like San Carlos Creek at New Idria, local officials should clean these places up--despite the money it would cost.

"If we end up with permissible levels equal to the levels found downstream at New Idria, then that number takes us into the stratosphere. To do so would be to take the stance that if a mine has almost eliminated fish entirely--as in San Carlos Creek--then we'll just write that area off."

Instead, Van Velsor believes that "both New Almaden and New Idria deserve huge amounts of attention to study their impact on human health because not only do they impact the people already there, but they affect future generations too, especially those in utero and/or exposed through breast milk."

Though the task and the cost of a mercury analysis and cleanup seem daunting, Van Velsor sees the challenge as a call to action. "I'm hoping for a national strategy for abandoned mercury mines," she says.

"We can't abandon our streams and rivers to this level of pollution."

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From the Dec. 4-10, 1997 issue of Metro.

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