In honor of Earth Day, we wanted to take a big look at a chronic environmental issue in the Bay Area, tracing it from its origins to the contemporary strategies to solve it. Mercury was the obvious choice: It’s been flowing into the Bay since before California joined the union, and it continues to trickle in from not just the old culprits, like gold and mercury mines, but a modern crop of industries, like refineries and cement kilns. Even little things – like a broken mercury thermometer dumped into the sink – are part of the problem.
The key fact here is how incredibly potent mercury can be: Just one little globule from an old thermometer can poison all the fish in a 45-acre lake, making them unsafe for humans to eat. Mercury pollution is hardly unique to the Bay Area; what makes us interesting is that local officials are making real strides in trying to clean it up. Over the next 17 years or so, we’ll spend $2.6 billion dollars on the project. Even then, we won’t have a clean bay for 120 years.
For a lot of people, mercury pollution in the Bay is largely theoretical, since few stores sell fish caught in the Bay, and relatively few residents fish for their food. But some still do – including many recent immigrants from fishing-intensive cultures like Laos. We’ll look at how mercury affects the health of local fishermen next week.
This piece marks our first-ever audio slide show, and what a difference it makes! We also hope you’ll check out the mercury map above, where you can see how many pounds of mercury come from each of the Bay Area’s five refineries, plus other mercury sources and the bay’s popular fishing spots.
Watch the audio slide show of “Mercury in the Bay” online, as well as find additional links and resources.
Amy Standen is a Reporter for QUEST and Radio News at KQED-FM.