The Elem Tribe's Last Stand

A small band of Native Americans living next to one of the world’s most contaminated mercury mines is struggling to hold on to its 14,000-year-old home.

JAMES BROWNEAGLE HOPS ONTO a roadside boulder next to the Elem Indian Colony and points toward sprawling Clear Lake, California’s largest freshwater lake, which is located in Lake County, 100 miles north of San Francisco. “That’s our cremation island, Buckeye,” he says. Browneagle, one of the Elem Pomo Tribe’s cultural leaders, explains that his tribe used to cremate their ancestors’ bodies on a small island to the left of Buckeye before boating the remains to the latter. “Ashes were spread on those rocks all through there,” he says. I follow his gaze but don’t see any islands, just a dry, blackened meadow at the edge of which two mounds sit almost hidden by oaks and brush. The waters and marshland that once lay between the mainland and these islands were diked and filled more than half a century ago. Behind us, a tall fence runs along the road. “Sulphur Bank Mercury Mine. Keep Out,” a sign reads. It was waste from this now-defunct mine, dumped into the lake in the early twentieth century, that snuffed out the wetlands separating the Elem tribe’s sacred islands from the mainland. Fire hydrant-like tubes now punctuate the grasses. The tubes are monitoring wells that were installed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1990 after it declared the abandoned mercury mine and a large swath of area around it, including the Elem Indian Colony, a highly contaminated Superfund site. Twenty-five years ago, virtually all of the small tribe’s some 200 members lived in the colony. Many have left since then, scattering to cities like Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, because of internal tensions within the tribe and worries about the health effects of living next to a highly contaminated site.

The mine’s legacy has only exacerbated existing divisions. Most of those determined to stay, including Browneagle, struggle with no support, and even opposition from within their tribe to remaining on these traditional lands. The EPA has already spent a quarter century and around $100 million trying to clean up the area, and estimates it would take another 20 or more years to complete the task. By then, there might not be any Elem left on the land that they have called home for millennia.

I VISIT THE ELEM INDIAN COLONY on a fall Sunday morning, meeting Browneagle outside a freshly painted community center. Beyond the center’s small parking lot, a charred trailer frame rests in the low, dry grass that covers the area. A faded roundhouse faces the community center across a recently paved road. The rest of the colony is sparse, filled with only 13 houses. Tarps, buckets, toys, and other items sit in their front yards. It’s 10 a.m. and I see no one else outside.

Browneagle, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, with a black bandana over his graying hair, leads me to a bench behind the roundhouse, where he lays out a bird’s-eye photo of the area. He points to a crescent island in the photograph, just offshore from the Elem Indian Colony, which sits at the edge of a triangular peninsula at the eastern end of Clear Lake’s middle arm, called Oaks Arm. That’s Rattlesnake Island, he tells me, the lake’s largest island. The island had been the Elem’s cultural and religious center for at least 5,000 years, but is now the private playground of a rich businessman from the California Bay Area. The diked wetlands of Buckeye Island run to the colony’s east, and the 120-acre Sulphur Bank Mercury Mine hugs the shore just south of it.The mine’s legacy has exacerbated existing divisions within the Elem tribe.

These days Clear Lake is most popular as a fishing destination, and it’s commonly known as the “Bass Capital of the West.” But its fishing history stretches much further back in time.

Spread over 68 square miles, Clear Lake — which flows into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and eventually into San Francisco Bay — is considered one of North America’s most ancient natural lakes. Created from the stresses of the San Andreas Fault System and volcanic activity nearly half-a-million years ago, the lake’s basin is home to one of the oldest documented Paleo-Indian sites in North America, going back more than 10,000 years.

The Elem Pomo — one of some 70 Pomo bands of north central California — trace their connection to Clear Lake back several millennia. Researchers think the Elem are the predecessors of most other tribes in the Pomo linguistic group, which probably had between 8,000 to 21,000 speakers in pre-European times. “We could be called, I guess, the Mesopotamia of all the tribes,” Browneagle says.

The Elem followed a seasonal lifestyle, eating mainly the wide variety of fish found in the lake, game, wild herbs, tule shoots, and mashed acorns. They were especially skilled at basket weaving. Their intricately designed, watertight bullrush and willow baskets are still highly valued today. Like other California tribes, the Elem Pomo suffered greatly at the hands of Russian fur traders, and Mexican and European colonizers. They were murdered, enslaved, forced to work on farms, and decimated by foreign diseases. They also lost most of their traditional lands — some 80,000 acres around the lake — to the invaders. In the mid-1800s, as mining and agriculture took over the area, the federal government signed a treaty giving the Lake tribes “sole occupancy and use [of Clear Lake] forever,” but the treaty was never enforced. By 1949 all the Elem had left was a 50-acre parcel right next to the toxic mine that was granted to them by the federal government as part of what became known as the Rancheria System in California.

The Sulphur Bank Mercury Mine began as a borax mine in 1856, was converted to a sulfur mine in 1865, and was ultimately turned into a mercury mine in 1873 after deposits of cinnabar — a mercury sulfide that is the most common source ore for mercury — were found beneath the sulfur deposits in the area. Mine operations boomed in the early years because of the ongoing California Gold Rush, in which miners used mercury to separate gold from surrounding materials. Over the following decades, many Elem, including Browneagle’s grandfather, father, and uncle, took jobs at the mine.

In 1927, the Bradley Mining Company bought the site and turned it into California’s largest open-pit mercury mine. That year has become widely recognized as a turning point for Clear Lake, its water’s quality, and the life of the people who live by it.

During World War II, the mine became the US government’s largest supplier of mercury for explosives. By the time it closed in 1957, it had produced 10 percent of California’s entire mercury supply. It had also dumped two million cubic yards of contaminated waste over 1,300 feet of Clear Lake’s shoreline. Frederick Bradley, the company’s current president, says his family worked “within compliance with the law at that time and helped win the war.” Perhaps so, but that’s no relief to the Elem and others living by Clear Lake, who continue to suffer the impacts of mercury and other toxic mine wastes that leached into the lake undetected for the next 35 years, and continue to contaminate the lake to this day.

STANDING ON A ROAD A SHORT way from the Elem Indian Colony, Browneagle and I stare down at a 23-acre pool that shines tropical blue under the fall sky. Drivers sometimes stop to photograph the pool, which contrasts sharply with the darker water of the lake beyond a far embankment. An orange tinge flecks a shore backed by steep-cut slopes of gray and auburn scree. “Everybody loves the colors,” Browneagle says.

This is the Herman Impoundment: the most beautiful, and dangerous, remnant of the Sulphur Bank Mercury Mine’s operations. The exceptional clarity and vibrant hue of the 90-foot-deep pool, in what used to be the mine pit, is due to sulfur-containing ores that oxidize in water, making it extremely acidic and fatal to most life. The water is also contaminated with mercury, arsenic, and antimony. The embankment, which consists mostly of mine waste, keeps the pool ten or more feet above the level of the lake, which lies less than 200 feet away. There’s always a fear that heavy rains could make the impoundment overflow and spill large volumes of toxic water into Clear Lake. The impoundment did flood at least once, in 1995, which briefly spiked the lake’s mercury levels. Though there hasn’t been any major flooding since, gravity constantly pulls the water through the mercury- and arsenic-rich embankment and into the lake. A natural geothermal spring at the pit’s bottom continually refills the pool, creating an endless underground stream that feeds Clear Lake, contaminating the lake with some of the highest levels of mercury found in lakes worldwide.

Following the passage of the 1956 Indian Relocation Act — which ended the rancheria system, terminated official recognition of most groups granted land under the system, and provided incentives for tribes to relocate to training centers in cities — most Lake tribes moved away. The Elem were the only Native community around Clear Lake that managed to avoid closure of its rancheria and held on to its status as a federally recognized tribe.

Living conditions on the rancheria, however, were so awful that when a group of Berkeley High School students visited a roundhouse ceremony in 1965, they were shocked by the state of the homes there. “They were pretty much stick homes built by the families,” Browneagle says. The houses had no running water and some lacked electricity. The students wrote passionate letters to the Bureau of Indian Affairs demanding better homes for the tribe. Given the strong support for Native American rights at the time, the bureau was compelled to act.

In 1971, the agency started to build new homes in the Elem Indian Colony and hook them up with water, sewer, and a power supply. “Which we all thought was great,” Browneagle says. “You know, ‘Fine. We’re finally going to get something.’” But the government and tribe still hadn’t realized the hazards posed by the mine next door — quite the opposite. The bureau saw the mine as a source of cheap materials, and it hauled thousands of cubic yards of contaminated mine tailings onto the colony to raise the Elem’s new road, houses, and other structures above Clear Lake’s 100-year floodplain. “I honestly think that they did not know [about the mercury dangers],” Browneagle says of the BIA workers.

Like other Pomo Indians, the Elem are especially skilled at basket weaving. Their intricately designed baskets are still highly valued today. Photo Stephanie Keith Like other Pomo Indians, the Elem are especially skilled at basket weaving. Their intricately designed baskets are still highly valued today. Photo Stephanie Keith / Reuters

It wasn’t until the early 1970s, when a young Elem girl started to have convulsions a local doctor said were caused by mercury poisoning, that the Elem realized there might be a connection between the high rate of health problems in their small community and the mine next door. Soon after, in 1976, a California Fish and Game Department biologist found elevated mercury levels in Clear Lake’s fish.

Tribe members were understandably upset. Fish from Clear Lake, usually caught right by the colony (and the mine site), were among their dietary staples and featured in most of their meals. “I went to school, and I caught fish, and I sold fish for a living,” Browneagle says. “Who told us that [it was unsafe to eat]?”

Mercury, as is now well known, is highly toxic to humans and wildlife. Contact with all forms of mercury can cause permanent damage to the brain and kidneys, and to developing fetuses. Inorganic mercury, the main kind found in mine deposits, is most often absorbed by ingesting contaminated soil, dust, or water. But bacteria and other microbes can convert inorganic mercury into an organic form of mercury, methylmercury, which is a potent neurotoxin that is more easily absorbed by plants and animals, and concentrates in living bodies as it passes up the food chain, a process called bioaccumulation. The EPA has classified methylmercury as a possible human carcinogen.

Thomas Suchanek, a US Geological Survey researcher who spent a decade studying Sulphur Bank, estimated in 2008 that the mine had added at least 100,000 kilograms of mercury to the lake’s aquatic ecosystem. He also discovered that the Herman Impoundment was leaching an endless flow of highly acidic groundwater into the lake. Despite this, drinking the lake water is generally considered safe because mercury, which is a heavy metal, usually sinks to the bottom of the lake and water companies don’t draw from the bottom of the lake. (Currently, some 17 different water companies source water from Clear Lake.)

But the mercury still posed a serious threat to communities, like the Elem, that regularly ate the lake’s fish. To make matters worse, by then the Elem were mostly eating invasive, predatory fish such as catfish. Because these species eat other fish, they tend to have especially high concentrations of organic mercury. “So we probably exposed ourselves more without even knowing,” Browneagle says. Suchanek adds that the Elem’s habit of chewing tule reeds while making baskets “might potentially be a source of contamination as well.”

AFTER THE ELEM HEARD ABOUT the contamination, most tribe members stopped eating lake fish, Browneagle says. Soon after, they started a long struggle to seek a remedy to the contamination from state and federal agencies.

The going wasn’t easy. It took the California Department of Health Services another 10 years to issue its first public statement warning against consuming fish from Clear Lake. And it took the EPA another four years to finally declare the Sulphur Bank Mercury Mine, Elem Indian Colony, and the adjoining wetlands a Superfund Site in 1990.

In 1992, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry tested the blood of 44 adult Elem members for the first time and found the average level of mercury in their blood was 15.6 micrograms per liter (µg/L). That’s much higher than the average blood mercury level within the general US population (2 µg/L), though below the US Centers for Disease Control’s toxic threshold of 50 µg/L. Some Elem women of child-bearing age, however, were found to have blood mercury levels between 20 and 25 µg/L — high enough to pose a risk to fetuses.In the 1970s, the Elem realized there might be a link between their health problems and the mine next door.

This study was in many ways too little, too late. While organic mercury leaves the bloodstream within several months at most, its effects on the brain, kidneys, and developing fetuses are permanent. As most tribal members had stopped eating fish years before the study, the longer-term effects of fish consumption on the tribe are still largely unknown. Many tribe members, including Browneagle, believe that there’s enough anecdotal evidence to show that the mercury has been impacting their physical and mental health. They cite the high number of cancer cases within the tribe, miscarriages, autism, and some developmental disabilities as well. “I really honestly believe in my heart that many of our elders here had that sickness,” Browneagle says.

Karola Kennedy, the environmental director for the Elem, thinks the damage is ongoing. “The children that are living on the reservation currently are still struggling educationally, [with] learning, and completing school and moving forward, whereas the children that have been moved off and live away from that environment have been much more successful,” she says. Kennedy is, however, careful to point out that without detailed research it’s impossible to tell for sure whether any of these health issues are directly linked with exposure to toxins from the mine site.

The EPA researched methods to curb the impoundment’s flow but found no easy, or even feasible, solutions. Instead, in 2006, the agency started what seemed like a more straightforward project: removing the mine waste that had laid under tribal members’ homes for 35 years and replacing it with clean soil imported from elsewhere. That effort, unfortunately, led to other unintended consequences.

In the process of rebuilding the houses and removing and replacing the paved roads, the contractors dug up about 8,000 cubic meters of soils containing historic and prehistoric deposits of Elem artifacts and remains. The EPA hadn’t appointed an archaeologist to oversee the waste removal work, as is usually required by law.

The project was almost two months underway when, at the tribe’s request, the agency hired John Parker, a Lake County-based archaeologist who’s an expert on Elem prehistory. Parker found both the oldest stone tool and oldest spear point ever discovered in North America at the site. All told, he found spear points from every period in Pomo history for the last 14,000 years. If historical artifacts are like books to be read by future generations, then the Elem Indian Colony is something like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Parker told me. He thinks many of the Elem’s “books” were “burned” during the cleanup, partly because he hit heavy resistance from the EPA and its contractor in his oversight of their work.

To add insult to injury, the cleanup didn’t really work — a 2007 health study showed the area was still contaminated.

Parker tried to help the Elem sue the EPA for damages. Based on court precedent of cultural resource destruction on federal land, he estimates the agency owes the Elem between $35 and $56 million, but long-standing tensions among the Elem over how the tribe’s lands and revenues should be managed stalled all lawsuit plans.

Instead, in February 2012, the EPA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bradley Mining Company, and the Elem Tribal Council reached an agreement that would have the mining company pay the EPA $10 million to cover some of the cleanup costs. All the Elem received from the deal was $50,000 and 380 acres of decontaminated land near the colony. As is standard in these settlements, the tribal council also agreed never to sue the EPA or mining company for anything else related to the mine.

When the Tribal Chairman Nathan Brown II signed the agreement, the rest of the tribe was furious.

Former councilmember Thomas Brown (Browneagle’s brother) believes a lawsuit would have been the only way to see his tribe’s problems resolved before he dies. “By signing that document,” he says, “we pretty much killed ourselves.”

In the wake of the settlement, internal tensions within the tribe surged again. In March 2016, the tribal council formally disenrolled 61 adults still living in the colony. The order would have emptied the entire colony as these members’ extended families, which include 71 individuals, would have had to leave as well. In April 2017, the tribal council withdrew its disenrollment order, but that has done little to mend the rift.

Browneagle still hopes the Elem will overturn the EPA settlement agreement, but a ten-year statute of limitations means time is running out. “Look at how [the federal government] divided our immediate family here. We’re all first and second cousins,” he says. “To me this is the continuing American genocide. And they like it, because we’re fighting each other instead of them.”

I WALK WITH BROWNEAGLE to a ledge overlooking the Sulphur Bank Mercury Mine. The Herman Impoundment’s shining waters spread below us, backed by the mine waste embankment and Clear Lake. A motorboat crosses the lake parallel to the slopes of waste. I try to imagine the endless stream of acid water that runs underground, just out of view.

The EPA is still researching ways to stem the flow of the Herman Impoundment, and cleanup options for the two to three million cubic yards of mine tailings remaining at the site, but it has yet to find a solution that both the agency and the tribe can agree on. A key sticking point is the impoundment. The EPA is proposing capping the tailings that make up the embankment with soil and vegetation to eliminate direct contact with humans and animals, diverting storm water from the pit to lower Clear Lake’s acidity, and leaving the water in the impoundment to slowly attenuate, that is, lose its toxicity over time. The tribe, however, wants the impoundment filled in and covered as well.

“Before mining you didn’t have a big old pit, 23-acres wide,” says Kennedy. “Because it’s an open body you can’t tell birds and animals not to drink that water … and that’s a problem for the tribe because we depend on that wildlife for our sustenance.”

In May 2018, the Elem identified three additional cleanup alternatives that they requested the EPA analyze. In an emailed statement, the agency said it was “currently developing the requested comparison and will meet with the Elem and the State of California in the coming months to evaluate these new alternatives.”

At the request of the tribe, the EPA also plans to conduct another human health risk assessment of the Superfund site in coming months. Kennedy is hopeful that this study, as well as a decision on how to proceed with the cleanup, will be ready by next year.

The EPA is still researching ways to stem the flow of the Herman Impoundment (pictured above), and cleanup options for the two to three million cubic yards of mine tailings remaining at the site. It has yet to find a solution that both the agency and the tribe can agree on. Photo Emma Leonard
The EPA is still researching ways to stem the flow of the Herman Impoundment (pictured above), and cleanup options for the two to three million cubic yards of mine tailings remaining at the site. It has yet to find a solution that both the agency and the tribe can agree on. Photo Emma Leonard

In the meantime, divisions remain about whether the Elem should continue to stay on the contaminated land. Many families moved from the colony following the failed 2006 cleanup effort, and at the time tribal administrators encouraged those remaining to do the same. Thomas Brown, who now lives outside the colony, and Agustin Garcia, the current Elem chairman, are still pushing the remaining residents to leave. They want the Elem to move to a new area, maybe with funding from the EPA, though finding a place has been hard. Regardless, Brown says, the tribal council will not build new housing in the colony. He wants to use the tribe’s ancestral home for only two purposes: cultural ceremonies in the roundhouse and burials on Buckeye Island. “Save only those,” Brown says, “but encourage the rest of the community to get out of there.”

However, many of the colony’s remaining residents — including cultural bedrocks such as the last on-colony speaker of the Southeastern Pomo dialect and keepers of the colony’s two roundhouses — are still resistant to the idea of leaving behind what remains of their home.

Walking back to the colony, Browneagle gestures past his modular house to the lake, noting how almost 200 years of colonization have cost the Elem so many aspects of their culture, including their relationship with Clear Lake, the very body of water that has sustained them for tens of thousands of years.

“None of us even swim,” he says. “We don’t even get in the water. I grew up where everybody had a boat. I don’t think anybody has a boat now, except maybe one of my brothers — a ski boat. Nobody even uses the lake … It’s like it doesn’t even exist.”

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