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Relic of the Past Bedevils California's Gold Country : Health: Land near old mines has high levels of arsenic. Residents are divided on seriousness of threat.

March 11, 1995|FRANK CLIFFORD | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

SUTTER CREEK, Calif. — For many residents of the California gold country, the abandoned ore mills and rusting mine machinery that dot the green hills are cherished icons of a storied past.

The relics are part of the lure of the Sierra Nevada foothills, where the look and feel of the Gold Rush era has helped attract thousands of new residents, making it one of the state's fastest-growing regions in the last decade.

But these days, frightened gold country emigres are learning a modern variation on the old admonition "all that glitters is not gold." High levels of arsenic have been found in new subdivisions near several old mines, triggering a panic in one Amador County neighborhood and prompting reviews of new development plans in the Sierra.

Federal and state health officials, meanwhile, are scrambling for more information about a potential hazard that has not gotten much scientific attention.

In the Sierra, gold-bearing ore typically contains minerals rich in arsenic. Arsenic is a heavy metal that is not necessarily dangerous but that can become a human health hazard after it is pulled from the ground and exposed to the air. Chronic exposure to arsenic in certain forms can cause asthma, kidney disease and cancer.

For years, human exposure was limited to the handful of people, mostly prospectors, who came in contact with old mine tailings--the piles of sandy residue left after all the gold has been extracted. But with the population boom around here, chances of exposure are on the rise, although the risks are in dispute.

The population of almost all of the gold country counties grew by at least 40% during the 1980s. With tens of thousands of old mine sites scattered across the western flanks of the Sierra, and residential growth tracking the footsteps of the Forty-Niners into remote corners of the Mother Lode country, officials are warning that public health could be at risk.

"There are proposed subdivisions on top of or right next to mine properties from Nevada to Amador counties," said Dan Ziarkowski, a hazardous substances scientist for the California Department of Toxic Substance Control. "You've got kids using these mounds of tailings for dirt-bike tracks. And you've got the crushed rock from the tailings piles being hauled off and used for landscaping and road surfacing."

For now, the arsenic issue is getting the most attention in Amador County, where in the late 1980s a small subdivision was built in the town of Sutter Creek on top of an 11-acre tailings pile. The tailings were left by the Central Eureka Mine, which operated on and off from the 1850s until the early 1950s.

The state and federal environmental protection agencies have reported that arsenic levels in soil in and around the Mesa de Oro subdivision are high enough--about 60 times what the state considers safe--to cause serious health problems.

About 75 families live in the immediate vicinity of Mesa de Oro, but government inspectors have found elevated arsenic levels in the soil of neighborhoods up to a mile away. One of the hazards of gold mine tailings is that ore processing has reduced much of the waste to fine, flour-like particles easily spread by wind or erosion.

Federal officials say they are planning a $3-million containment project to seal the arsenic at Mesa de Oro under two feet of fresh soil. In the meantime, they have told residents not to plant gardens in the contaminated earth or let their children play in the dirt.

The Mesa de Oro investigation was touched off by a construction worker's complaint last year that he became ill digging a foundation. Although no one else has turned up sick, the arsenic findings have prompted some residents to try to sell their homes and others to rue the day they ever heard of the gold country.

"I've got $400,000, my life savings, tied up in a house I can't sell and my wife is terrified of living in," said John Pulskamp, a retired San Fernando Valley electrical engineer who moved here last year.

Hanging conspicuously in Pulskamp's home is a bulletin board on which the pictures of all the neighborhood children have been mounted next to a caption warning that the youngsters' safety is most at risk.

"My goal is to get my three little girls out of here," said Pulskamp's neighbor, Patty Sullivan. "I don't care if they tell me my driveway is clean enough to eat off."

Concern has spread to nearby Jackson, the site of two of the state's most productive 19th- and early 20th-Century gold mines. There, according to Ziarkowski, inspectors have measured arsenic up to 1,000 times what the state considers safe on a 60-acre tailings plateau where there were plans to build houses and a day-care center.

Both projects were stopped recently, he said, and a wire fence was put up around the vast, gray ridge of mine waste. But on a recent visit to the area it was clear from breaks in the fence and bicycle tire tracks on the tailings that the site has not been effectively quarantined.

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