This time it's a rush of for taxpayer dollars to "clean up" mercury left over from mining operations during the Gold Rush. While enviornmental groups scramble for share of the money experts disagree on the necessity of cleanup.
A recent article in USA Today has portrayed a pending crisis in mercury contamination based on a paper by Dr. Michael Singer of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The six page study cost taxpayers nearly $280,000 and found floods cause erosion and redistribute gravel by pushing it downhill. Despite a few researchers having proved gravity acts in this way the environmentalists have seized upon this study as evidence many more millions need to be spent on studying the problem.
The Singer Report found each major flood pushes gravel, sediment and the accompanying mercury, which is buried beneath this gravel, downhill. The Study concludes it will take nearly 10,000 years for the gold rush mercury to completely flush from the upper river systems where it will finally settle in the valleys and deltas.
The real Gold Rush moved mountains. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated nearly 1.3 billion cubic yards of gravel were washed from California mountains between 1855 and 1910. That's the equivalent of 80 million dump trucks.
Environmental groups propose to move molehills in search of mercury, but only if funded by grants. Grant requests submitted by environmental groups seek over $6 million in funding to process 160,000 cubic yards of gravel in Lake Combie, California. Or about the amount that was moved in a single day in the Gold Rush. The recovered mercury is valued at $8,000 per ounce, or about seven times the price of gold.
If taxpayers adopt the environmentalist approach to removing mercury it will cost about $53 billion and take 40,000 years to complete the cleanup. Or, as the Singer Study points out we can do nothing and the rivers will clean themselves in 10,000 years.
There is an abundance of mercury in parts of California in rocks called cinnabar. The California Coastal Range was the source for the majority of mercury used in gold mining. Mercury was used by the Gold Rush miners because of its affinity to bind with gold. When mercury is put in a sluice box it captures the very fine particles of gold which would otherwise wash away with the water.
Although mercury is naturally occuring research shows it can be harmful in people if consumed in sufficient quantities. Our fear of mercury poisoning is based on industrial dumping of mercury in Minamata Bay, Japan. In the 1950's a large industrial operation dumped tons of mercury into a shallow, warm bay where the local people caught their seafood. This concentration of mercury in warm water allowed the mercury to convert to a toxic form which was then absorbed by the food chain and ultimately consumed by people.
The Minamata Bay problem was caused by tons of mercury being dumped each year and not being flushed from the bay. It was a concentration problem. Although large amounts of mercury were used during the Gold Rush, this mercury has largely been flushed from the rivers already, and the Singer Report estimates across the mountains of California only .001% of this mercury is released during each major flood.
Researchers disagree on whether the gold rush mercury requires cleaning up. New research has led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) to revise their fish consumption guidance. The updated guidance recommends eating significantly higher amounts of fish. A recent study published in the Journal of Epidimiology found women who ate significant amounts of fish during pregnancy had children with significantly higher IQs than those women who didn't eat fish.
"It depends," says Dr. Nicholas Ralston, the leading biological mercury researcher in the United States. "In the past several years there has een tremendous progress in understanding the mercury issue. Mercury can be a problem if you are exposed to a big dose, but in the small doses encountered under these conditions there is very little risk. If all the residual mercury from the Gold Rush was dumped in the bay at one time we could see harm, but certainly not in the amounts the Singer study is referring to."
Dr. Ralston's position is supported by several years of California Water Board studies on mercury in mountain lakes and rivers. The Water Board has studied this issue over the past ten years and their research concludes the majority of areas within gold country are under US EPA prescribed limits for mercury. The California Department of Health has no records of anyone, anywhere in California suffering from mercury poisoning from eating fresh water fish.
Environmental groups counter mercury ends up in the food chain. However, recent California Water Board research failed to show this link. The research found mercury levels in the valley and delta exceeded US EPA thressholds, but in the mountain rivers there were very few areas of concern. In the higher elevation streams the fish have consistently well below US EPA limits.
"It's a solution in search of a problem." said Craig Lindsay, president of the Western Mining Alliance, one of the few groups who have challenged the environmentalists expenditure of taxpayer funds to study mercury. "There's a lot of money involved in these mercury studies and environmental groups have their hands out, hoping they can continue to receive millions to study a problem which has never resulted in harm to a single person. Suction dredgers were removing hundreds of pounds of this mercury every year for free, now environmental groups are removing grams of this mercury at the cost of $6 million. It's nothing but another form of welfare."