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Texas company ordered to clean up contaminated property in Lake County
Release Date: 10/06/2006
Contact Information: Mark Merchant, (415) 947-4297
(10/06/06 - San Francisco) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered a company headquartered in Houston, Texas to clean up severe mercury contamination from a parcel of land in Lake County.
The order went to El Paso Merchant Energy-Petroleum Co., a subsidiary of El Paso Corp., and is expected to cost as much as $2 million. The 424-acre property is 25 miles west of Williams and 10 miles east of Clear Lake and is now owned by several tenants in common.
The contamination is limited to two abandoned mines mercury mines on the property that operated off and on between 1870 and 1971. Colorado Oil and Gas, which was bought out by El Paso Corp., was the last company that owned and operated the mines – starting in 1958 – making El Paso liable for cleanup costs.
The extent of the contamination was detailed in April 2006 when a federal on-scene coordinator from the EPA’s Pacific Southwest regional office’s Emergency Response Branch in San Francisco inspected the site. The OSC estimated that there is approximately 173,000 cubic yards of calcined tailings, some of which are being undercut by Harley Gulch. Harley Gulch feed Cache Creek, which feeds the Sacramento River.
“The contamination at the site is extensive and threatens human health and the environment,” said Janet Yocum, the federal on-scene coordinator in charge of overseeing the site cleanup project. “Clean up needs to begin now and be completed as soon as possible.”
The Cache Creek watershed contributes as much as 50 percent of the total mercury load in the Sacramento River. When mercury mining waste gets into rivers and streams it dissolves and accumulates in tissue of fish. Mercury bioaccumulates as it moves up the aquatic food chain, resulting in higher and higher tissue concentrations as it moves up the food chain.
In addition, air samples were taken at the tailings piles that showed very high levels of mercury vapor. Mercury vapor readily enters the bloodstream through the lungs and damages the brain, kidneys and developing fetuses. Effects on the brain include irritability, tremors, changes in vision or hearing and memory loss. Short term exposure to high levels of mercury vapors can cause lung damage, vomiting, diarrhea, increased blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes and eye irritation.
Because the site is easily accessible to the public, the EPA is ordering El Paso to immediately restrict access to the site and begin removing the tailings from Harley Gulch and to install drainage controls site wide to manage tailings transport to the watershed. Once the tailings are removed from Harley Gulch, a job that is expected to take approximately three months, additional work may be required to manage mercury contamination at the site.