California's abandoned mines pose asbestos riskA new study has revealed that a number of old mine shafts from the days of California's Gold Rush, which dot the Sierra Nevada region, have contaminated the soil with asbestos, lead and arsenic.
Researchers at the Sierra Fund, a small environmental group, said that the various minerals were ground to dust and carried to the surface by miners looking for gold, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The dust is now disturbed, and potentially inhaled, by the many hikers, mountain bikers, off-roaders and horseback riders in the area.
Tests of the soil near the mouth of several of these old mines revealed extremely high levels of asbestos and other dangerous substances.
The Gold Rush "not only brought wealth and hundreds of thousands of people to California, it also brought mining machines that ripped down sides of mountains and tunneled thousands of feet into rock, leaving behind arsenic and lead," Elizabeth Martin, chief executive of the Sierra Fund, told the news source. "This is the longest neglected environmental problem in California."
The inhalation of asbestos dust is extremely dangerous, as the deadly mineral, which was once widely used for its resistance to fire, can cause a number of diseases such as lung cancer and asbestosis. Asbestos also causes malignant mesothelioma, a rare and deadly form of cancer that attacks the thin membrane that lines the chest, lungs and abdomen.
These asbestos dangers, along with the ones posed by the other deadly materials in the soil, are generally overlooked, according to Martin.
"A lot of people are aware that their kids can fall into a hole at an old mine. But they don't know that asbestos fibers can lodge into their lungs or lead can be absorbed into their skin," Martin said.
So far the researchers have tested just 80 samples from 11 trails and recreation areas throughout the Foresthill, Downieville and Nevada City regions, but the Sierra Fund maintains that the 47,000 abandoned mines across the state are a serious health risk, says the news provider.
The Foresthill Off-Highway Vehicle area close to the Marall Chrome Mine pit was found to contain lead levels in the soil that were 18 times higher than accepted federal and state levels and 40 percent of samples showed asbestos contamination, the Sierra Fund's science director Carrie Monohan told the news provider.
The non-profit group says that additional testing must take place and has recommended warning signs be erected to caution passersby of the danger. The group also wants to restrict access to public trails in places that are highly contaminated.
California has been dealing with the ramifications of its abandoned mines for the past several years. A 2008 federal audit accused the Bureau of Land Management, an organization that manages abandoned mines in several Western states, including California, of failing to clean up deadly materials around the sites and of not cordoning off the areas.
In addition, half of the Clear Creek Management Area, a 31,000 acre piece of public land, had to be closed in 2008 because a report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed that waste from an old asbestos mine posed a health risk to those who used the area to fish, hunt and ride off-road vehicles.
Cleaning up the asbestos and other materials from the area is nearly an impossible task, as the minerals have been spread so thoroughly throughout the region, according to the spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management's Central California division.
"The technology is a challenge," he said. "The approach to cleaning up mines is steam cleaning them and cementing over them, and that costs a lot of money."
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