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U.S. EPA Approves Limits on Mercury in California Waters


In California, Gold Rush-era mining operations released millions of pounds of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, into state waterways. Miners dug up 12 billion tons of earth, and used mercury to extract the gold ore. The amount of mercury required to violate federal health standards is equivalent to one gram in a small lake. Approximately 26,000,000 pounds of mercury was used in gold mining Northern California, mostly in the Sierra Nevada and the Klamath-Trinity Mountain areas. The amount of mercury lost to the Northern California
environment from the 1860’s through the early 1900’s is estimated at 3–8 million pounds. A University of California at Davis study estimated that Clear Lake, the traditional homeland to Pomo Indian fishing communities, contains over 100 tons of mercury today.  Once there, the toxic metal builds up in fish tissue and is consumed by people and wildlife. To address that risk, the state’s new criteria set maximum mercury limits in fish tissue for various species caught for sport, subsistence and cultural practices.

The new rules:
“We commend the State Water Resources Control Board for working with numerous tribes and dischargers to develop and adopt water quality standards for protecting human health and wildlife throughout the state from the harmful effects of mercury,” said Alexis Strauss, EPA’s Acting Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest. “By focusing on mercury concentrations in fish tissue, these rules will have a direct and positive impact on public health and the environment.”

The state’s new rules set five new water quality criteria for mercury in fish tissue for tribal subsistence fishing, general subsistence fishing, prey fish, sport fish and for fish commonly consumed by the protected California Least Tern. The new criteria will help protect and inform the public about levels of mercury in popular sport fish like salmon, bass, sturgeon and trout.

“Salmon, bass, sturgeon and other popular fish like trout are sought after as a key food source by California Native American tribes, and other groups that depend on fish for sustenance, but are often contaminated by mercury.  Mercury is found in many fresh water bodies in California, and is largely a legacy of the Gold Rush era, and difficult to deal with, but cannot be ignored,” said State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus. “This approval is an important step in focusing attention on what can be done to limit exposures.”

The new mercury criteria will apply to inland surface waters, enclosed bays, and estuaries of the state, except for water bodies where approved site-specific objectives already exist, such as: San Francisco Bay and Delta; Clear Lake; and portions of Walker Creek, Cache Creek, and Guadalupe River Watersheds.

SOURCE: Adapted from EPA News Relaese dated 07/18/2017

Related information

California State: CALFED Bay-Delta Program website:  Mercury: The Toxic Legacy of the California Gold Rush
EPA: Health Effects of Exposures to Mercury
California EPA: State Water Resource Control Board: Addressing Mercury in California's Waters
California EPA: State Water Resource Control Board: A copy of the approval letter and standards

 Related EVISA Resources

Link Database: Toxicity of Organo-mercury compounds
Link Database: Mercury exposure through the diet
Link Database: Environmental cycling of methylmercury
Link Database: Environmental cycling of inorganic mercury
Link Database: Environmental pollution of methylmercury
Link Database: Environmental pollution of inorganic mercury
Link Database: Toxicity of mercury

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last time modified: July 19, 2017


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