Cleanup Accord For Park Reached

$2.5 Million To Clear Mercury-Mining Legacy

By Paul Rogers

Mercury News Staff Writer

Ending 12 years of lawsuits, toxics studies and delays that limited public use of one of the Bay Area's most distinctive parks, Santa Clara County officials announced Thursday a settlement to clean up mercury contamination at Almaden Quicksilver County Park.

Under the deal, Myers Industries, an Akron, Ohio-based company, will pay $2.5 million to clean up traces of mercury left from the famous New Almaden Mines, a cornerstone of San Jose's 19th century history.

Cleanup Underway

Cleanup work at the hilly, 4,000-acre park 12 miles south of San Jose already has begun. It is expected to finish by December 1997, said Alan LaFleur, Santa Clara County's deputy parks director.

At that point, fences closing off one-third of the park will come down, trail signs will go up and plans will move ahead for a horse staging area and a museum showcasing mining in San Jose history. Off-limits rules dating back to 1987 will end.

"This closes a chapter on the park," said LaFleur. "It wasn't a real good chapter, but there's a feeling of relief. Now it's time to start building the vision we had when we bought it 23 years ago."

The area's colorful history as one of California's first mines carried a high price for future generations.

$3.2 Million In Costs

Toxic leftovers from mercury mining in the New Almaden Hills once San Jose's leading industry and the one for which the Mercury News was named in 1860 created a nightmare for county leaders.

The total cleanup cost at five sites on the property Hacienda Furnace, Mine Hill, Senator Mine, Enriquita Mine and San Mateo Mine will be $3.2 million. The county will pay about $1.2 million of the bill.

Santa Clara supervisors will vote on the agreement Tuesday.

From the 1850s to 1912, the area's deep tunnels, shafts and smoking furnaces made it the most productive mining area in the United States.

In two purchases in 1973 and 1975, Santa Clara County bought the New Almaden lands for about $4 million from the New Idria Chemical and Mining Company. Officials hoped to create a sprawling park in the area, blocking housing development.

But engineers working to design a museum site found high traces of mercury, a naturally occurring element that can cause neurological problems and birth defects when ingested in high levels.

Park plans ground to a halt in 1984 when the state Department of Toxic Substances Control placed the site on the state Superfund list, a cousin of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's list of hazardous waste sites.

"People here were very upset," recalled Kitty Monahan, a longtime New Almaden area resident and parks supporter. "They'd been fishing in the creek and hiking the hills for years. There was never a problem."

By 1987, the state had issued a cleanup order.

One 1993 study found that even if the mercury traces were not buried, a child would have had to eat dirt six hours a day on the site for 110 days a year to exceed federal health standards. When crews finish putting in a two-foot thick layer of dirt and clay, planted over with trees and grass, the risk will be even more negligible, say officials.

"It will be safe for picnicking, hiking, all the things people want to do at a park," said Barbara Cook, a site mitigation branch chief with the Department of Toxic Substances Control in Berkeley.

In 1992, the county sued Myers Industries, a company that makes plastic containers, tool boxes and tire repair equipment. Myers isn't in the mining business, but had bought Buckhorn Metals in 1987, a company which in turn had earlier acquired New Idria Mining and Chemical Co., the outfit that mined in the area from 1968 to 1973.

That left Myers liable.

"Myers Industries is pleased the litigation is coming to an end," said David Cooke, an attorney for the company in San Francisco. "We believe we have a fair and reasonable settlement. Basically we're glad it's over."

As part of the agreement, another company, Newson Inc., will pay Myers $1.35 million. Newson is a corporate relative of another defunct company, New Almaden Corp., which mined on the site from 1940 to 1946.

"This took a long time, but sometimes you have to wait and be patient for good results," said deputy Santa Clara County counsel Kathryn Berry, who handled the case for the county.

For years, state officials barred the county from advertising, promoting or improving Almaden Quicksilver County Park. As a result, only about 50,000 people a year have visited. The area is thick with oak trees, manzanita, deer, hawks, rabbits and other chaparral community wildlife.

Until cleanup work is completed next year, the park will remain open only to foot traffic, mostly from a northern entrance on McAbee Road.

"I think it was worth it to buy the park," said LaFleur. "It's value will grow over the years and people won't remember the lawsuits and delays. They'll just enjoy the park."

Posted: Fri Oct 25 05:42:06 PDT 1996