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Abandoned Mine Near Russian River Has Alarmingly High Levels Of Mercury

GUERNEVILLE (KPIX 5) -- When it rains in Guerneville, people keep a close watch on the Russian River, because rising waters can flood the town. But just upstream, there's another threat when it rains, found in the large piles of red dirt bordering a creek that runs into the River.

They're part of what remains of the Mount Jackson mine, once one of the largest mercury mines in California.

It closed in the early 1970s, after operating for more than a century. The mine owners are long gone. But large piles of dirt and rock tailings remain.

Norman Grib lives not far away from the mine, and what he could see from the road worried him.

"I had driven by the mercury mine here, I think Mount Jackson, and noticed that the tailing piles don't seem to be covered with some sort of asphalting material or plastic material so when it rains they don't contaminate the waterways," Grib said.

Grib knows a lot about mercury. He inspected working mines for the Environmental Protection Agency back in the 1970s when mercury mines in the west closed down, rather than obeying new and costly EPA air pollution regulations.

He contacted KPIX 5  after watching a story we did on another mercury mine leaching poison near Hollister. He wanted to know if any agency had looked to see if the tailing piles at Mount Jackson were poisoning the nearby creek and the fish people eat.

Dan McEnhill is with Russian River Keeper. River Keeper did their own small test of striped bass in the river ten years ago. The fish all had mercury levels well over the EPA limit.

But the state has not posted any warnings on the river.

"When you're under 18 to 20 years old, your brain is still developing and mercury retards that development," said McEnhil.

Our investigation into the Mount Jackson Mine prompted the local Regional Water Quality Control Board to conduct tests in the mine area for the first time.

"The levels we found were about four times the levels that would be considered a hazardous waste," said Claudia Villacorta, Division Chief for Groundwater Protection at the board.

In addition to being four times the level of mercury in the soil, the board discovered that some of that was going directly into the creek.

When we first brought this to the board's attention, they moved on it, did the testing, got the results, and are now moving forward.

"That's our hope," said Villacorta, " You know, our job here is to protect water quality."

Studies have shown that eating contaminated fish poses a significant health risk.  "Eating fish with mercury that was half a part per million a couple times a week for a month you could measurably reduce your I.Q.," said McEnhil.

It turns out that more than a decade after the mine closed, the EPA put Mount Jackson on their Superfund list, and then did nothing about it.

We asked the EPA why no action was taken in 1989. It sent the following statement: "Though mercury was found in the surface water and in the groundwater well on-site, these waters were not consumed."

Based on this assessment, the site did not qualify for the National Priorities List and was given a "No Further Remedial Action Planned" label.

As for solutions? Current property owners may have to foot the bill to cover piles of dirt. The water quality board is also testing fish in the Russian River now, with results expected by the end of the year.

"I'm glad that KPIX was dogged enough to pursue this over many months," said resident Norman Grib. "It's a slow process these federal and state agencies, they move with glacial speed. I know," he grinned. "I used to work there."

We also checked tests of drinking water supplied to the Guerneville area. Tests did not show any detectable levels of mercury.

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