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Elem Colony Superfund cleanup turns messy

Part two

ELEM COLONY, Calif. - Archaeologist John Parker's relationship with the Elem people began in the 1970s. He's been an archaeologist for 30 years, and has researched the Pomo people since the start of his career.

He even did the work to put the 50-acre Rattlesnake Island, now privately owned, on the Register of Historic Places. Prior to non-Indian encroachment, Rattlesnake Island, located on Clear Lake, was the cultural and religious center of the Elem people for some 6,000 years.

According to his research, as a whole, the Pomo people have lived in the Clear Lake area for at least 6,000 years, but more likely 12,000 years and longer. ''There is no written history for these people; it's all buried in the ground,'' he said.

At the end of July, tribal officials requested that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hire Parker as the primary archaeologist on the project since he was already familiar with the culture. He agreed, and what he experienced the next two months left him bewildered with the on-site contractors and EPA as a whole.

Parker said he would go into areas that contractors were ready to excavate and mark the sites that he wanted preserved. He said that when he left the reservation on a few occasions, contractors would excavate some of those areas.

Pomo Nation member Sandy Thomas said that when Parker would leave for any length of time, he would give her detailed notes on what areas he wanted undisturbed, but she felt ignored when she tried to stop contractors from excavating those areas. ''Every time something happened, I would call him and write it down,'' she said.

Rick Sugarek, the EPA remedial project manager for the Elem cleanup, admitted that workers ''on occasion made a mistake'' by excavating areas that Parker wanted to preserve. ''I think, in general, we complied with what he wanted us to do,'' he said.

In one case, Sugarek said contractors disagreed with Parker about the historical significance of material found on the site where three homes once stood, as depicted in a 1906 photo. The area of the bygone homes was covered by the old road and contaminated soil, and a new road needed to go in its place.

When Parker left for a family reunion on a weekend in early September, he planted small, yet visible, red flags in the area of the 1906 homes so he could further study the area. Yet, against his request, contractors excavated the site.

In preparing for the new road, contractors had to dig deeper than usual to remove the mine waste and level out the ground.

In retrospect, Parker said that he had asked contractors to bring in fill dirt to level out the area, instead of digging beyond the contaminated area which, he said, ultimately damaged and destroyed artifacts and cultural material.

Sugarek said that he and contractors consulted with another archaeologist on the matter, who determined that the 1906 area lacked historical significance - a point on which Parker disagrees with the EPA to this day.

''There was a couple times that I was ready to walk away,'' he said.

He estimated that if a price tag could be put on the amount of damage done at the entire site, the figure would be about $25 million. ''Whatever I can do to make this not happen again, I will do,'' he said.

Parker collected about three pickup-truck loads full of artifacts. He was amazed by all the Chinese porcelain unearthed, and said it likely came from the Chinese mine workers of the 1800s. Many of the workers married into the tribe, he said.

Most of the artifacts are not museum-quality, and all items will be researched and documented by Parker, then returned to the tribe. ''They had no idea that immediately under the mine waste was these irreplaceable historical resources,'' he said.

Where did the mercury come from?

Prior to the 1970s, tribal members had limited access to water and endured driving on bumpy roads, so new housing and infrastructure were needed to bring the tribe up to modern standards of living.

To make the land level for building new homes and infrastructure, fill dirt was needed. In 1971, the BIA decided to take dirt from the adjacent Sulfur Bank Mercury Mine. It was a seemingly convenient solution at the time.

The problem? Nearly three decades later, the EPA learned that the soil was contaminated with high levels of mercury and it was time to undo the mistakes of the past.

According to both Brown and Parker, that mercury was causing illness in tribal members. Brown claimed that a growing number of the Elem people are on dialysis and/or have liver problems.

But there are no listed cases in the EPA's files on the Pomo people's health status.

Sugarek said that the last known blood and hair samples taken of the Pomo people to measure mercury levels were taken about 10 years ago.

He didn't disclose how many people participated in the test, but he said that one participant had elevated mercury levels. The remainder had slightly elevated amounts that were well below an abnormal rate.

The type of mercury found in the soil isn't easily absorbed into the skin, which Sugarek noted is good news. He called it cinnabar, a mineral type of mercury. ''The main risk is that young children might be exposed to the soil because they are playing in the dirt,'' he said.

As of press time, archaeologists from the BIA hadn't returned phone calls.

Currently speaking

Sugarek said that ''there was a lot good done with this project.''

Five new homes were built and six were renovated. Two mobile homes that were damaged and/or contaminated beyond repair are going to be replaced.

Raymond said his house was renovated but he wasn't completely satisfied with the work. He moved back into his home in early December, and he said that he spent his own money to improve his home.

Ultimately, he's relieved the project on his people's land is completed, with the exception of some road work and minor details. ''The only thing that I like is that it was cleaned up, but on the other hand there were issues,'' he said.

As for pursuing litigation, the tribe hasn't made any firm decisions.