The environment — the soil, the rivers and streams that compose the Sierra foothills’ spectacular landscape — presents the intersection of the region’s legacy as a hub for diverse types of mineral mining and the current human activities such as fishing, mountain biking and hiking that have a more recreational flavor.
The Sierra Fund, a locally headquartered nonprofit, held a meeting this week that explored that intersection, with speakers making the case that an individual who eats a fish caught in an area reservoir, river or stream will be susceptible to impacts created by the residue of the furious mining activities of centuries ago.
While overseeing the construction of a mill at the direction of early California pioneer John Sutter, James Marshall, a carpenter, was examining a channel below the half-constructed building in Coloma on the morning of Jan. 24, 1848, when he noticed a glint of golden flecks in the water that flowed into the South Fork of the American River.
What ensued is one of the largest infusions of men and women into a geographic area in human history known as The Gold Rush.
In many ways, Nevada City and Grass Valley acted as the epicenter for the teeming surge or activity, which focused solely on extracting as much remunerative minerals from the rich geological veins in the area.
The environmental devastation that resulted remains in residual forms and the visible version boasts a sort of terrible beauty that attracts thousands of tourists to places like Malakoff Diggins State Historic Site and Empire Mine State Historic Site.
Carrie Monohan, a scientist who works for the Sierra Fund, said the more damaging residue from the mad mining days is more insidious, nearly invisible.
‘Fish and Dust’
Monohan presented a talk entitled “Fish and Dust,” which details the conclusions arrived at in two separate studies she conducted over the past several years.
Mercury, arsenic, lead and asbestos — materials harmful to human health — were disinterred during more than a century and a half of mining activity in the region and when the industry ground to a halt in the 1950s the noxious metals were in large part unremediated and left behind.
Monohan titled her talk after the two endpoints where the inimical metals affect human health — consumption of fish and exposure to dust. The California Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment has issued a warning that states certain types of fish are unhealthy for human consumption due to the presence of elevated mercury levels.
Charlie Alpers, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said a large-mouth bass caught in Hirschman’s Pond, for instance, should not be eaten by anyone.
Other fish such as rainbow trout can be eaten in moderation, depending on the water body from which they are caught.
There is a lack of easy answers, which is why Monohan believes better signage is necessary to protect people from consuming mercury-contaminated fish.
To be safe, women under 45 and children under 18 should not eat any bass or large brown trout from these and many other lakes.
Mercury can have adverse affects on children and produce birth defects in children if women of a certain age consume.
Mercury contamination in water does not present a danger to recreational swimmers, nor is a drinking water problem, although arsenic, which is found in some mineral rich areas of the Sierra, is a known carcinogen.
“Get your wells tested,” Monohan said.
Another equally deleterious problem is the existence of small strands of metals that could be ingested into the lungs of humans engaging in various recreational activities.
Monohan provided the example of the Foresthill Off Highway Vehicle area, where levels of asbestos present a potential for exposure to people who bike or use motorized vehicles that kick up dust, which is, in turn, inhaled.
The effects of both environmental hazards as a result of mining have just begun to be studied and the implications for wildlife and the food chain/web must be further explored, Monohan said.
More than 100 people showed up Monday at the Nevada City Veterans Hall to hear Alpers, Monohan and Jason Muir of Holdrege & Kull present various findings relating to the loading of toxic materials into various environmental features mostly centered around watersheds.
“We were thrilled to have such a broad range of participants attend the meeting,” said Elizabeth Martin, CEO of The Sierra Fund.
“The number of people who attended and the great questions they asked clearly show that folks are interested in our mining history and how it plays into our lives today. The Sierra Fund was pleased to bring experts to answer some of the community’s questions.”
The nonprofit deemed the event a success, as an engaged audience asked several questions after each presentation.
“I was expecting maybe 50 people” said Outreach Coordinator Amber Taxiera, “but we had to keep bringing out more and more chairs as people arrived.”
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4239.