By JASON DEAREN, Associated Press Writer Jason Dearen, Associated Press Writer – Fri Sep 18, 8:00 am ET
NEW IDRIA, Calif. – Abandoned mercury mines throughout central California's rugged coastal mountains are polluting the state's major waterways, rendering fish unsafe to eat and risking the health of at least 100,000 impoverished people.
But an Associated Press investigation found that the federal government has tried to clean up fewer than a dozen of the hundreds of mines — and most cleanups have failed to stem the contamination.
Although the mining ceased decades ago, records and interviews show the vast majority of sites have not even been studied to assess the pollution, let alone been touched.
While millions live in the affected Delta region, the pollution disproportionately hurts the poor and immigrants who rely on local fish as part of their diet, according to a study conducted by University of California, Davis ecologist Fraser Shilling. His research found that 100,000 people, which he calls a conservative estimate, regularly eat tainted fish at levels deemed unsafe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"Tens of thousands of subsistence anglers and their (families) are consuming greater than 10 times the U.S. EPA recommended dose of mercury, which puts them at immediate risk of neurological and other harm," Shilling said.
But neither the state nor federal government has studied long-term health effects of mercury on the people who regularly eat fish from these waters.
The legacy of more than a century of mercury mining in California — which produced more of the silvery metal than anywhere else in the nation — harms people and the environment in myriad ways.
Near a derelict mine in this California ghost town, the water bubbling in a stream runs Day-Glo Orange and is devoid of life, carrying mercury toward a wildlife refuge and a popular fishing spot.
Far to the north, American Indians who live atop mine waste on the shores of one of the world's most mercury-polluted lakes have elevated levels of the heavy metal in their bodies and fears about their health.
And other mercury mines are the biggest sources of the pollution in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the largest estuary on the Pacific Coast.
Mercury is considered most harmful to people when consumed in fish. People who regularly consume tainted fish are at risk of headaches, tingling, tremors and damage to the brain and nervous system, according to the CDC.
The toxin is less of a threat in drinking water, which is filtered and monitored more closely.
Mining in California ceased decades ago, leaving behind at least 550 mercury mines, though no one knows for sure how many. One U.S. Geological Survey scientist says the total may be as high as 2,000.
Government officials blame mining companies for shirking their financial responsibilities to clean the sites, either by filing for bankruptcy or changing ownership.
When the government does target a site, success is not guaranteed.
The Sulfur Bank Mine has made the nearby Clear Lake the most mercury-polluted lake in the world, despite the EPA spending about $40 million and two decades trying to keep mercury contamination from the water. Pollution still seeps beneath the earthen dam built by the former mine operator, Bradley Mining Co.
For years, Bradley Mining has fought the government's efforts to recoup cleanup costs. An attorney for the company didn't return calls seeking comment.
For the Elem Band of Pomo Indians, whose colony is next to the lake and shuttered mine, the mercury has made it unsafe to eat local fish.
As a child, Rozan Brown, 31, said she ate lake fish, swam in the turquoise waters of the mine waste pit and played on mercury-tainted mine waste piles.
"When I was pregnant, I drank the water," Brown said. "When I was breast-feeding, I worked as a laborer during some of the (mercury) cleanups."
The CDC says high levels of mercury can cause brain damage and mental retardation in children when passed from mother to fetus. Brown's son, Tiyal, has been diagnosed with autism. The CDC has found no link between mercury and autism, but agency spokesperson Dagny Olivares said in an e-mail, "Additional information is needed to fully evaluate the potential health threats."