The $517,000 in funding to stop the leakage at the disused Mount Diablo mine was secured this month after lobbying by a trio of East Bay Democratic representatives - Congressmen Jerry McNerney and George Miller and Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher - whose districts are affected by the pollution.
The area that's being polluted is the Marsh Creek Watershed, a 128-square-mile expanse of rangeland, farmland, protected parkland and urban land east of Mount Diablo. Marsh Creek flows approximately 30 river miles from its headwaters in Morgan Territory Regional Preserve through Brentwood and Oakley and empties into the Delta at Big Break.
Although the 14-acre Mount Diablo mine was shut down in 1958, rainwater has continued to leach mercury out of the site as it washes over the mine's tailings (dirt dug out of the mine and dumped outside the tunnel onto Mount Diablo's slopes). A study conducted at UC Davis in 1995 concluded that 90 percent of the mercury found in Marsh Creek can be traced to the miles of tailings at the mine. That mercury is then flushed downhill 10 miles via two small streams into Marsh Creek before eventually draining into the Delta and San Francisco Bay.
The funds came through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but represent only a fraction of the overall funds needed to fix the mine. It will cover barely half of the cost of preliminary design and planning studies, which are expected to run to at least a $1 million.
"The money we've got will be used to gather information … to go in and do some geological studies and biological and water assessments," said Mitch Avalon, deputy director of the Contra Costa County Public Works Department, which will be involved in the cleanup.
The actual cleanup work, which involves diverting rainwater around miles of mine tailings and burying the tailings in soil, isn't complicated, said Avalon.
"We'll basically need to re-grade the area so the storm water doesn't flow through the tailings, cap it with soil and vegetate it."
But it can be an expensive undertaking that's estimated to cost over $3 million. Exactly how the county will obtain the balance of the funds needed to complete the cleanup is unclear at this stage.
Nevertheless, the initial funding that's been handed to the county is a start, though long overdue, according to Diane Burgis, coordinator of Friends of Marsh Creek Watershed, a local advocacy group that promotes awareness, preservation and restoration of the creek and surrounding area.
"This has been a long time in coming; we've been pressing the county for years," Burgis said. "The Marsh Creek Watershed is the largest in Contra Costa County and we're lucky to be in a unique situation where we have such a big expanse of natural beauty and wildlife in the middle of an area that's undergoing rapid urban expansion."
Burgis added that many such areas haven't been so lucky. Many fall victim to neglect, pollution and encroachment from overdevelopment. "Since we haven't," said Burgis, "this is our opportunity to preserve Marsh Creek and make it an asset and jewel in our community for generations to enjoy."
While the problem of mercury pollution is well documented, figuring out who takes responsibility for cleaning up a mess that was created nearly half a century ago remains an ongoing challenge for Bay Area legislators and local authorities.
Many regional and local authorities have been reluctant to get involved, fearing that it will open themselves up to million-dollar lawsuits from environmental groups that might force them to pay for the cleanup. Forcing former mine owners to cough up the cash isn't an option, either, as all went out of business decades ago. The mine is now under private property ownership and the current owner can't be held liable since he didn't create the damage and hasn't engaged in any mining activities.
"We want to help clean up this mess, but we need to have some liability protection first," said Public Works Department deputy director Avalon, whose department is responsible for providing flood control and water conservation in the area.
"We've never owned the mine and right now we're not required to clean it up. If we were to go in, we'd have a lot more liability on our hands."
To ensure such protection, Avalon said that the Public Works Department would be signing agreements with both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Regional Water Quality Control Board to outline his department's role in any cleanup effort. That, he said, would provide shelter from liability at both local and state levels.