Due to its unique mining history of being the main source of mercury used in vast quantities for gold processing during California's Gold rush, Santa Clara County suffers from large concentrations of mercury pollution. In high enough amounts, mercury can prove harmful to humans, especially to children and pregnant women, by causing neurological defects. A recent Mercury News article detailed the severity of this problem by reporting on a survey conducted by the State Water Resource Control Board. The survey found that five Santa Clara County lakes and reservoirs rank in the top 15 statewide for mercury contamination, with concentrations well above the consumption-safe level. Almaden Lake, near San Jose, has the highest mercury concentration in California.
Several policy options should be considered for reversing this contamination. These policies function as variations of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a standard pollution-control concept which holds the original producers of a pollutant responsible for the recovery and disposal costs throughout the entire life of their product. In Germany, EPR is applied through the Green Dot System whereby a product is awarded a distinguishing symbol if its manufacturer helps to fund the recovery and recycling of the product’s packaging waste.
One solution here in California would be a new state law making the original mercury producers responsible for funding the removal of the mercury that they have introduced into California's economy. These would be the earliest in time, "upstream" producers of the mercury, who would be responsible for solutions at least as much as the later consumers who may have less knowledge of the problem or only deal with tiny amounts. The California Product Stewardship Council (CPSC) works on similar EPR concepts that shift costs of waste management from publicly-funded entities to private manufacturers.
Depending on the product, some waste materials are difficult or impossible to recover. Applying EPR may work best when manufacturers can recover the same kind of waste even if it’s not tracking and recovering the specific waste they released. From a cost-efficiency standpoint, it may be cheaper to allow manufacturers of mercury-related products the option of participating in the removal of the mercury waste of others. For example, several old mine sites have large concentrations of mercury and do not present the same clean-up challenges as tracking and disposing of mercury-related products distributed over a large area . Cleanup of mercury in “fixed” locations, however, may provide fewer environmental benefits because that mercury has less outlets to enter the ecosystem. In order to compensate, producers who choose this option should have to clean up much more mercury than they actually emit thorough their own product.
A third potential solution is to focus not on the physical removal of the mercury, but rather on mitigating its toxic effects. These measures include installing devices which might pump oxygen into lakes to prevent mercury from being chemically converted into its harmful form and working to isolate old mercury deposits.
CGF will continue to track this issue and cooperate with the with other organizations looking for opportunities to help create the significant legislative and regulatory changes needed to combat the severe problem of mercury contamination in Santa Clara County waters.
(UPDATE: Anthony has revised the text above to clarify some of the concepts. We thank readers for the suggestions.)