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Maidu Tribe convenes panel on Mercury from the Gold Rush

NEVADA CITY, Calif. – The peoples who were here before the Gold Rush started are now becoming concerned with what was left behind by that massive invasion – mercury.

During Indigenous Peoples Days an afternoon of discussion centered around the toxic leftover. One of the more useful elements for collecting gold in the 1800s was mercury. Today it is one of the most prominent mining toxins in the Sierra Nevada.

The silvery metal commonly was dumped into Gold Rush creekside sluice boxes where it bound with finer-grained gold into an amalgam more easily removed from the box’s sediments. When hydraulic mining created a great deal more slurry, more mercury was added. Some of the mercury got suspended in the water and transported downstream. Much of it is still there.

The “Mercury in our land and our water” panel brought together local experts and a chemist from Siberia, along with a Russian mineral specialist. The leftover mercury problem – and other negative effects of gold mining – seem to be worldwide.

There was a 20 to 30 percent loss rate of mercury to the environment during the Gold Rush. An estimated 26 million pounds of mercury were used to extract gold from the ore and an estimated 10 million pounds were lost to the environment. Much of it washed downstream to the Sacramento River Delta.

Ray Warren, retired mining engineer, had this terse warning for the mercury panel’s audience: “Don’t take out dams. When you have something contained, leave it contained. Mercury is an elusive little bugger and it goes to the bottom.”

Sendema Dorzhievna Shirapova, chemist and teacher from the Lake Baikal region in Siberia, spoke to the panel’s audience in Russian. Her words were translated by Leola One Feather.

“Mining in the region (where she lives) has greatly affected the landscape and in some places it looks like a moon landscape. For many years the Soviet Union used mercury in gold mining. Mercury from the mining has gone into the rivers. People began to get symptoms of toxic poisoning from the river water. Higher death rates are being seen in areas where the mining has taken place.”

Zinaida Andreevna Altukhova, mineral specialist from Russia’s Sakha Republic, told the group, “The gold mining industry in Mongolia has caused 900 small rivers to disappear. They feed Lake Baikal, the largest fresh water resource in the world.”

“I am very excited to sit on this panel with people who come from so many different places,” Elizabeth Martin, Director of the Sierra Fund, told the group. “We all have something in common: we care about where we live and how it was affected by mining.

“The Sierra Fund began studying mining impact here several years ago,” Martin said. “People have this very romantic image of mining, a guy with a donkey and a gold pan. And it was like that for the first couple of years. But after about three years all the surface gold was gone and it required huge machines to get to the gold, recover it, treat it, and get it out to the world. Increasingly destructive methods, like hydraulic mining, were used. We washed the mountains down from where we live to the San Francisco Bay.”

Today Sacramento County estimates it will cost them between a half billion and a billion dollars to install new filters on their water systems to take out the mercury still present in the Sacramento River, left behind by the Gold Rush.

Hydraulic mining eventually was banned by court order and gold mining went underground.

“There are hundreds of miles of tunnels under Grass Valley and Nevada City,” Martin added. “They left behind piles of debris that were brought to the surface and crushed to get to the gold. Often those rocks were filled with arsenic, asbestos, lead and chromium. These mine tailings were used to build roads and distributed themselves across the landscape quite broadly.”

Warren added, “I have never found a pile of tailings in this area that didn’t have contaminants.”

“Today we have a whole bunch of problems left over from those times,” Martin continued. “We have mercury in our rivers that is a danger to humans when we eat the local fish. It’s dangerous to every single organism living in our rivers and to anything that eats anything that lives in the rivers. The whole web of life is affected by this mercury.”

Maidu Tribe Chairman Don Ryberg said, “We’ve been trying to get tribes involved in the problem of mercury and other toxics in our rivers and creeks, and I really believe we’ve finally found something that will pull these tribes together. We’re trying to educate people and to educate ourselves. We’ve been taking the message up and down the Sierras. There are 26 tribes involved or interested in the problem of mercury in our water, our fish, and our people.”

Three community radio stations in the area carried the panel live.