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Workshop slated to address mercury contamination

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A Feb. 27 workshop will deal with hazardous mercury levels left over from Gold Rush mines that pose a possible danger in fish from five reservoirs and two streams in the Nevada County area.

A state advisory draft – the first ever for the Sierra – warns residents of dangerous mercury levels in fish in these reservoirs:

— Scotts Flat east of Nevada City;



— Rollins east of Alta Sierra on the Placer County line;

— Englebright west of Lake Wildwood on the Yuba County line;




— Lake Combie southeast of Lake of the Pines on the Placer County line;

— Camp Far West at the extreme southeastern corner of the county south of the Spenceville Wildlife Recreation Management Area.

— Portions of the South Yuba River and Deer Creek.

Janet Cohen, executive director of the Nevada City-based South Yuba River Citizens League, called the state’s announcement a delayed response, given counties have long-since issued similar advisories.

“They have a conservative method for determining the risk,” she said.

Most people can safely eat limited amounts of the contaminated fish, but children and women of childbearing age should be careful how much they consume, she said. Excessive mercury levels can damage the nervous system.

Over the generations, bacteria converted inorganic mercury used to extract gold from sand and gravel to more dangerous methylmercury, which fish then eat. The department warns that the methylmercury can accumulate in fish in concentrations thousands of times greater than in the surrounding water.

The warning is based on fish samples taken in 1999 from the reservoirs and 14 stream sites. An initial analysis in 2000 led state and local health officials to issue interim health advisories that people eat bass from the waterways no more than once a month, and eat catfish and other fish no more than once a week.

The new proposed warning suggests that children and women of childbearing age not eat any bass from Camp Far West Reservoir; eat bass and catfish from the other waterways no more than once or twice a month, depending on where the fish are caught; and eat trout from Deer Creek no more than twice a month.

Adult men and women beyond their childbearing years should eat bass and catfish from the waterways no more than two to four times a month, depending where they’re caught, and eat Deer Creek trout no more than four times a month, the advisory says.

While the draft report identifies the problems, cleanup efforts to limit further trouble remain. Cohen, for one, said SYRCL has applied for research grants to examine cleanup issues.

“Whatever happens is going to be extremely big and involve the Delta area, and it’s going to be very expensive,” Cohen said.

Tracy Gidel of the Nevada County Department of Environmental Health said the county and other governmental agencies are still in an assessment phase.

“This work won’t end the problem of mercury in the streams, but it’s a start,” he said.

It took the state roughly three years to issue the draft advisory because analyses involved different tests on varying kinds of fish, said Allan Hirsch, spokesman for the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

The office’s team of five statewide scientists, he said, “doesn’t have the luxury of working on one project full time.”

The need for a state advisory is strictly “a process that places a lot of value on public input,” Hirsch said. His office will take public comment Feb. 27 at the Nevada Irrigation District office in Grass Valley.

Such an advisory would also be published in the next state Department of Fish and Game fishing regulations booklet.

A state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment workshop to discuss mercury-contaminated fish and take comments on the problem is set for 2 p.m., Feb. 27 at the Nevada Irrigation District conference room, 1036 W. Main St., in Grass Valley. Read a state draft report at http://www.oehha.ca.gov.


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