Mercury excited the imagination of alchemists.
It is the only metal that exists in liquid form at room temperature.
The shimmering beads have an otherworldly appearance, rolling and dancing on a flat surface.
What was poorly understood was how toxic the material is. It can harm the nervous, digestive and immune systems, as well as the lungs and kidneys.
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Tremors, speech problems and emotional instability were all symptoms of mercury poisoning.
The phrase "mad as a hatter" refers to mercury poisoned hat-makers who used mercury nitrate to convert fur into felt for hats.
Nevertheless, mercury was once an ingredient in quack patent medicines. When heated, the highly toxic vapor was a key step in the daguerreotype photographic process. And the element was also a key ingredient in munitions production and gold and silver mining.
Mercury was dumped into riverside sluices and into ore-processing facilities to help capture small flakes of the precious metals.
It is estimated that the mercury dumped into California rivers by miners in the 1850s will be measurable until about the year 11850.
Today, the market has collapsed as mercury has been phased out of most products.
SLO County history
It is estimated that the Buena Vista mine, upstream from Nacimiento Lake, produced millions of dollars worth of mercury.
Now, taxpayers are paying to button it up.
A report by Cal Poly researchers in the early 1990s said that 78 percent of the mercury found in Las Tablas Creek was from the Buena Vista and Klau mines, according to a May 8, 1993, Telegram-Tribune story. Owner Harold Biaggini disputed those findings.
After decades of legal maneuvering, a July 27, 2000, Tribune story reported that the Environmental Protection Agency was beginning a $2 million project to prevent mercury-tainted water from flowing into Las Tablas Creek and Nacimiento Lake.
Nearly two decades later, the Buena Vista and Klau mines remain a superfund site.
Biaggini, subject of the Telegram-Tribune story below from Feb. 11, 1971, died on March 11, 2014, after a colorful life that included ventures in mining, insurance and hotel ownership.
Biaggini’s Buena Vista mercury mine owner asked students for help, got it
Six Cal Poly students received $600 in cash awards for their ideas on how to restore and beautify the eroded and barren lands around the Buena Vista mercury mine in northern San Luis Obispo County.
The awards were announced to the news media at a cocktail party last night at the Madonna Inn, hosted by Harold Biaggini, owner of the Buena Vista. The checks were presented to the students at a Poly luncheon on the campus at noon today.
The Buena Vista mine, which is said to have produced over $25 million in mercury since 1957, is closed at present while water problems are being solved. The deeper mine tunnels go, the more water they encounter. Biaggini decided that solution of the water problem could be combined with the “ecological restoration” of the area, left eroded and barren by earlier strip mining. For help in this field he turned to the ornamental horticulture department of Cal Poly.
In another phase or the cleanup program, the mill is being converted from the use of fuel oil to propane gas, eliminating air pollution.
Biaggini said last night that the mine, which employs a crew of over 50 men, may be reopened this summer, but not until the ecological problems have been solved. The great deposits of red cinnabar, which have been revealed by drilling, will be opened through a new shaft with new water control methods.
Tony McLean, research and development director for the Buena Vista, said that meanwhile the Cook Laboratories in Menlo Park have found a new method of treating the mercury contaminated water, which makes it available for irrigating the surrounding land.
Mercury is measured by the flask (2 1/2 quarts) and at the present market is worth about $350 per flask, In recent years, however, the price has usually been around the $500 mark. Twenty student from the horticulture and architectural departments at Poly visited the mine last October and 12 of them later submitted their proposals for restoration of an area of about 150 acres.
The winning entry, for an award of $300 was shared by three students, Patricia Hamer, a senior in architecture, along with Duane Morris, senior, and Ronald Quinn, junior, in ornamental horticulture. Two students shared the $200 second-place award, William R. Patterson, horticulture, and Irving Miyamoto, architecture. The $100 third-place prize went to John DeWelt, Atascadero horticulture major.
In recognition of his interest in ecology, Biaggini was presented with a plaque, the presentation being made by Robert Gordon of the Cal Poly faculty. Students working on the project have been supervised by Howard O. Brown, head of Poly’s ornamental horticulture department, and Wesley Conner and Gordon, members of the faculty.
The Buena Vista mine was first opened in 1866, but the location had been lost until Biaggini re-discovered it in 1957. It is the largest mercury mine in the nation owned by one man and is one of the California mines which together produce 9/10ths of the quicksilver mined in the United States. Several other California mines are closed just now, McLean said last night, because of the current low price of mercury.