Cleaning up California’s Wild West: EPA takes on polluted mercury mine in San Benito ghost town – by Paul Rogers (San Jose Mercury News – December 4, 2011)

This article originally came from the San Jose Mercury News:

Every second of every day it flows: a river of poison gushing from the hillsides.

Forty gallons a minute, 21 million gallons a year. It bubbles and gurgles across the landscape, a bright orange toxic brew, nearly as corrosive as battery acid, teeming with mercury, aluminum, iron and nickel, the legacy of a long-abandoned mine, relentlessly pouring into nearby streams.

For 120 years, the mining town of New Idria in the rugged back country of southern San Benito County was a colorful California outpost, a Wild West community frequented by prospectors and speculators, stagecoaches and famous bandits like Joaquin Murrieta, known as the “Mexican Robin Hood.” Herbert Hoover even owned part of the claim at one point.

Today, after decades of neglect, this remote landscape with so much history may finally have a future.

In September, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared New Idria a Superfund site, placing it among the most polluted properties in the nation. Since then, workers with hard hats and heavy machinery have combed the landscape — once North America’s second largest mercury mine, but today a ghost town — on the first phase of a cleanup that could ultimately cost $10 million and take five years or more to complete.

“It is a toxic hell,” said Jared Blumenfeld, regional administrator for the EPA in San Francisco. “It epitomizes what Superfund is for.”

EPA officials say New Idria, whose polluted runoff may threaten San Francisco Bay, has more mercury pollution than any of the 96 Superfund sites in California, and possibly the United States.

“It really is like a movie set,” Blumenfeld said. “There’s all the old housing, the mercury, the San Andreas fault. When you look at it, you know it’s dangerous, and it begs for cleaning up. It’s really hard to believe something like this exists in California today.”

Zane Gray to Zorro

The mine, which closed in 1972, is now little more than a collection of rusting machinery and crumbling cabins a two-hour drive south of Hollister through a landscape that looks like Wyoming.

But in its heyday, New Idria’s story reads like a Zane Gray dime-store novel.

Its first prospectors in the early 1850s were members of the gang of bandits run by Murrieta, a Gold Rush-era outlaw believed by some to have inspired the fictional character Zorro. After Murrieta was killed in 1853, one of the earliest miners with a claim on the land, Peter Collins, was found with his throat slashed when he wouldn’t sell out to new investors. An early New Idria treasurer absconded to Chile with company funds.

At its peak, New Idria had a company store, a post office and a school, with about 600 miners and their families from as far away as Mexico, Britain and the Far East living there by the 1880s.

The miners earned $3 a day and carried candles for light.

“It was extremely difficult work,” said Fresno historian Ray Iddings, author of “The New Idria Story: Told as it Happened.” “They would work in tunnels and take the ore out by drills and dynamite and picks, and shovels and sledgehammers. They’d put the ore in carts, and mules would pull the carts out. Around 1890, the mules were replaced by engines.”

The only mercury mine in North America that was more productive was the New Almaden quicksilver mine, 12 miles south of downtown San Jose.

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