It was a case of the ancient practice of alchemy colliding with modern-day concerns over chemical disposal.
Hazardous-waste experts descended upon the former residence of a miner Saturday in Acton and began the task of identifying chemicals abandoned in dozens of broken and leaky containers.
There is concern that the chemicals might have contaminated the drinking water supply of nearby residents, said Steve Lafflam, an industrial hygienist with Los Angeles County's Department of Health Services. He was working at the site with members of the Sheriff's Department's Hazardous Materials Team.
Leslie Lynch, the 75-year-old former owner of the property in northern Los Angeles County, had an intense interest in gold mining and claimed that he had perfected a way to chemically extract gold from "ancient water," said his attorney, Calvin M. Young III.
The attorney said it is not unusual for residents in this old gold mining area "to experiment around on a small scale with chemicals to extract gold."
Chemicals Dumped Into Hole
Apparently, Lynch mixed his chemicals and then dumped what he did not need into a hole several feet deep, Lafflam said. The ground water table is only six or seven feet below the surface, creating concern that the chemicals might have contaminated drinking water supplies, he said. About 150 yards from the property is a well where some residents obtain water.
For 14 years, Lynch ran an ore assaying business on the property, but about 1 1/2 years ago he moved to San Diego County, said his son, Monty Lynch.
The property was sold Friday, which prompted Fred Kerpsie, an Acton gold miner, to inform the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department that the ramshackle property was laden with chemicals.
Kerpsie, who lives in a trailer atop a gold mine, said that, when he began cleaning up the property in early 1984--on Lynch's behalf--he had become ill and had to stop. "That place is a death trap," Kerpsie said.
Investigators said they are not sure what chemicals are stored on the property or how far the contamination spread. Monty Lynch told authorities that his father had large amounts of dried chemicals plowed into the ground.
Lafflam said Leslie Lynch, who is in poor health, was unable to help identify the chemicals and apparently is nonchalant about the toxic materials he routinely had handled.
"Typically, these backwoods prospectors don't think this stuff is hazardous," Lafflam said. "Lynch said you could tell what the chemicals were by tasting them. That's the kind of mentality you're dealing with."
The hazardous-waste experts said they are attempting to determine if there is any cyanide on the property. Cyanide mixed with acid produces the poison released in gas chambers. Typically, ore assayers use cyanide to extract gold from low-grade ore, said Lafflam.
The investigators have detected the presence of mercury, which they said is an extremely hazardous chemical, on the property. Lynch's laboratory will have to be buried in a toxic waste landfill, Lafflam said.
About 20 50-gallon cardboard drums of chemicals had spilled out of a truck. An equal number of metal drums containing liquids rested along a wire fence. Several plastic bottles of unidentified liquids and a few dead chickens also were on the property, which was littered with junk and overgrown with weeds. When the wind blew Saturday it whipped up a pungent chemical smell.
A shopping center is about 350 yards south of the property, while to the north are several houses.
Lafflam said the cleanup could cost tens of thousands of dollars and it is unclear whether Lynch, who has agreed to pay for the work, has the resources to cover the costs.