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Abandoned Mercury Mine Tainting Russian River Fish

GUERNEVILLE (CBS SF) -- A KPIX 5 investigation into an abandoned mercury mine near Guerneville has revealed that the state plans to issue a serious health warning that certain fish in the Russian River are not safe to eat.

Toxic dirt has been washing into a local creek which feeds into the Russian River. But the public may not know this because there are no warning signs posted, and there won't be signs for months.

Why isn't the public being warned about this health danger?

After a surge of recent storms, the Russian River has taken center stage as rising waters flooded the town of Guerneville. Rescue crews took KPIX along, as the river was about to crest.

The waters have since receded, but there is a different danger in the water and it has been there for some time.

The Mount Jackson mine is just upstream. One of the largest mercury mines in California, it closed in the early 1970s after operating for more than a century.

The mine operators are long gone, but large piles of rock and dirt remain. They border a creek which flows into the Russian River.

A KPIX investigation last fall into the Mt. Jackson mine prompted the Regional Water Quality Control Board in Santa Rosa to conduct mercury tests in the area for the first time.

Claudia Villacorta, in charge of Groundwater Protection at the Board, told KPIX 5 that "the levels that we found were about 4 times the levels that would be considered a hazardous waste."

And the Water Board found signs that some of the toxic dirt was washing directly into the creek.

Now KPIX has learned that the State Water Quality Control Board tested fish in sections of the Russian River for potential mercury contamination.

Those fish were sampled two years ago. KPIX 5 has obtained the draft results of the tests of those fish -- results which were just released to the Water Board.

The draft results state that the fish "at all five locations from Ukiah to Monte Rio are accumulating mercury within their tissue, and that a fish consumption guideline for the Russian River will likely be developed."

The state says the testing process will likely lead to a mercury advisory by the end of the summer, but that advisory will come two years after the fish were sampled.

Don McEnhill, with the environmental group Russian River Keeper, wants to know, what's the hold up?

"What we would love to see in a perfect world is the public being alerted right away", he said.

But the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment says it is "not slated to complete this advisory until fiscal year 2017-2018."

Their reason? They say the state is still developing warnings for other waterways in the state.

And until those warnings are finally posted, environmentalists say they will be doing their own warnings, by word of mouth.

McEnhill says "women who are pregnant and small children should not eat bass in the Russian River. They are fun to fish for, fun to catch, but don't eat them."

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