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The DAILY DIRT - The nitty and the gritty of outdoor news

California's Toxic Trails

California's mining legacy leaves arsenic, lead, and asbestos in thousands of trails

State parks in California have been threatening to close for lack of funds for years now, which is a huge bummer for your future weekends—but maybe it's not so bad for your health. Recent soil tests on trails near mine shafts in the Sierra foothills reveal dangerously high levels of arsenic, asbestos, and lead left over from the Gold Rush; when kicked up as dust particles, it's possible for hikers, bikers, and other trail users to absorb these nasty carcinogens.

Environmental advocacy group the Sierra Fund limited their research to 11 trails near Foresthill, Downieville, and Nevada City, but California's 47,000 abandoned mine shafts portend similar results elsewhere. Soil samples in one test area showed lead levels 18 times higher than state and federals standards, and 40 percent of soil samples showed asbestos contamination.

In 2008, the federal government tasked the Bureau of Land Management with cleaning trails or erecting barriers, but that's easier said than done. California got $20 million from Obama's stimulus package earmarked specifically for abandoned mine cleanup, but the combination of steam cleaning and cementing over toxic sites means actually finishing the job could be much more expensive.

In the meantime, I guess you could always hike in a hazmat suit. They even make them with Gore-Tex now. How convenient.

—Ted Alvarez

via SF Gate

image credit: alphatangobravo

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Derek Clark
Jul 08, 2010

I have just moved back to Foresthill. If the Sierra Fund wants to do further studies or post warnings fine. Closing trails is not the answer. I can make my own decision on what is good for my health or not I don't need the nanny state telling me. The areas in Foresthill in the study are primarily OHV and mountain biking areas. It sounds like more of a land grab to push these groups off the multi use trails.

Allie McLachlan
Jun 24, 2010

I agree with Eric. I think this BS is actually a scare tactic put up by those who would rather see our state parks close. It is absurd...
I for once, won't give up hiking, mountain biking or running... Guess what, we are all dying someday and most probably because of some form of cancer anyway. Just go enjoy life outside, while you can.

Eric Nelson
Jun 24, 2010

Well, in terms of the heavy metals arsenic and lead, all soil has some. In fact, most clays, even non-contaminated ones, have 10 times the EPA regulated amount. Adults and older children have little trouble passing it through their system. I do not think it is so evident that the heavy metals and asbestos in the soils in California is due to mining. Many parts of the world have naturally ocurring heavy metals and other harmful minerals like cinnabar, asbestos or uranonite near the surface. Is this any worse than living in an urban setting with brake dust, smog and other toxins in the air. Please don't make me feel like I should not go outisde and enjoy the trails.

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