State issues mercury warning
Toxic metal from mining taints Sierra lakes, streams, fish.
By Stuart Leavenworth -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Wednesday, December 17, 2003
State health officials urged anglers Tuesday to curb their consumption of fish from
Sierra reservoirs and parts of the Bear and South Yuba rivers because of toxic
mercury found in bass, catfish
The mercury warning marks the first time the California Environmental Protection
has issued a formal health advisory for fish taken from a Sierra lake or
stream. It probably won't be the
last. Authorities expect there will be many more
warnings as scientists test waters below hundreds of old
mines in the Sierra
Mother Lode, where miners used toxic mercury to separate gold from ore.
"People view the Sierra Nevada as pristine, but mercury was used in gold mining,"
said Allan Hirsch, a spokesman for Cal-EPA. "Now we are seeing the same
contamination we have seen in other
parts of the state." A highly toxic metal, mercury builds up in fish reaching its highest concentrations in species such as
bass and catfish.
Women and children are particularly at risk, because regular consumption of
mercury-laden fish can impair brain functions in developing infants and fetuses.
Hirsch noted that people can still fish and eat some of their catch in waters
the advisory, which include such popular lakes as Rollins Reservoir and
On the other hand, health officials want women and children to limit their bass and
consumption to one or two meals a month, and to completely stop eating
bass from Camp Far West Reservoir in
Yuba County, which contains some of the
highest mercury concentrations in fish and sediment yet found in the
The advisories weren't completely unexpected. Over the last two decades, Cal-EPA
fish mercury warnings for 14 water bodies statewide, including the San
Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-Joaquin
Across the country, hundreds of water bodies are polluted with mercury, much of it
from coal-burning power plants that release the toxic metal in their
In 1999, a U.S. Geological Survey study found worrisome levels of Gold Rush
mercury in fish
from the Yuba and Bear river watersheds. State and county officials
issued an interim warning in 2002 for
all the water affected Tuesday. But it took
three years for Cal-EPA to complete Tuesday's final advisory,
which is somewhat
more protective than the earlier version.
Scientists aren't optimistic about cleaning up these waters any time soon.
"There is no silver bullet," said Charles Alpers, a USGS geologist and one of the
researchers to shine a light on mercury problems in the Sierra.
Although the Forest Service and other agencies are plugging some old mines in
he said, there is still tons of mercury-laden sediment in reservoirs that
continues to transform into methylmercury,
a form that's easily taken up by fish.
The advisories themselves are also in question. Purely informational, they come
enforcement authority or requirement that state or county officials post
signs or educate anglers.
Some marina owners doubt they will have much impact on their business.
"A lot of people catch and release (their fish) anyway," said Karol Miller, an
at the Skipper's Cove Marina at Englebright Lake.
Earlier this month, the state issued a fish consumption advisory for Black Butte,
Gorge and East Park reservoirs in Glenn, Tehama and Colusa counties,
which sit downstream of mercury mines
in the Coastal Range.
The two separate advisories, with recommended consumption levels for different
fish, can be found at www .oehha.ca.gov, the Web site of Cal-EPA's
Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
Makes you wonder why anyone would want to go in some of these northern mines!