San Jose owner of mining town ordered by courts to pay $150,000
for removal of toxic waste
At least the garbage in New Idria will be cleaned up.
After more than six months of haggling, lawyers on both sides
agreed with Judge Harry Tobias Friday that Sylvester Herring must
pay $150,000 within 20 days to fund the cleanup of hundreds of tons
of hazardous junk and solvents he unloaded at the abandoned New
Idria Mercury Mine.
San Jose owner of mining town ordered by courts to pay $150,000 for removal of toxic waste
At least the garbage in New Idria will be cleaned up.
After more than six months of haggling, lawyers on both sides agreed with Judge Harry Tobias Friday that Sylvester Herring must pay $150,000 within 20 days to fund the cleanup of hundreds of tons of hazardous junk and solvents he unloaded at the abandoned New Idria Mercury Mine.
Herring, 62, is the owner of a remote 880-acre historic mining site in southeast county that was the second biggest producer of mercury in the western hemisphere before closing in 1972. Since the mid-80s, Herring used the area to house residents of his drug rehabilitation center, Futures Foundation, as well as an illegal dump, prosecutors said.
Stacey Geis, a state environmental circuit prosecutor who headed the case against Herring, said the money Herring is expected to pay for remediation will not be enough for the colossal cleanup, but it’s a start.
“It’s a mess out there,” said Geis. “This is forcing him to stop the solid waste storage and start addressing the issue.”
After prosecutors got a hold of Herring’s financial files, they discovered he could refinance his home in San Jose to get rid of at least part of the 15 years’ worth of accumulated hazardous debris that should have been taken to a hazardous waste disposal site or to a legal landfill in the first place.
“The $150,000 is not the end all,” said Geis. “It doesn’t limit the rights of any other agency to seek compensation for other violations. If the money is not enough, maybe the feds can finish the cleanup. Then they can go after him for money. There could be future cost recovery actions.”
Originally faced with two felony counts of hazardous waste dumping and a dozen misdemeanors along the same vein, Herring and attorney Randolph Daar cut a deal with prosecutors to skip a trial, dismiss and reduce charges to a handful of misdemeanors with no jail time and take three years of probation. Herring pleaded no contest to five misdemeanor charges, but will have to give the San Benito County District Attorney’s Office $150,000 within 20 days to fund the cleanup of the old mining town.
The money is going into a trust, and Herring has a month and a half to work out a cleanup plan with the county’s Environmental Health and Integrated Waste Management departments. Geis said that if all goes well, the job of removing the waste will be handed over to state and federal agencies, but such arrangements are not yet final.
“Usually the property owner does the remediation,” said Geis. “But in this case, he (Herring) is so unsophisticated and it’s not a corporation. We decided it would be more efficient if the state or the feds take it over.”
The California EPA Department of Toxic Substances Control will most likely oversee the cleanup, she added.
Originally Herring’s wife, Sylvia, was also charged with the same offenses because at one time she was part owner of the mine. But as part of the deal, all charges were dropped against her.
“We looked at her financial records, too, so that she couldn’t hide anything for him,” said Geis. “If I find out he did, I can void the whole deal. I could also charge him with perjury.”
The mine and its mammoth cinnabar tailing piles – already infamous for a constant outpouring of toxic orange acid mine drainage into the county waterways and beyond – were used as an unlicensed, illegal dumping ground for Herring’s garbage hauling business, which he operated out of San Jose using the labor of residents in his drug rehabilitation centers, called Futures Foundation Inc. New Idria itself was the site of a failed rehab and only two residents are currently living there.
For years, residents along Panoche and New Idria roads observed Herring’s crew make daily trips to New Idria in a four-ton stake-bed truck loaded with household and construction wastes and covered with a tarpaulin. The men would dump the waste — including old mattresses, scrap metal, refrigerators and other broken appliances, junk cars and old paints and solvents — in the historic ghost town, then drive back to San Jose, prosecutors said.
Some of it was thrown amid the piles of cinnabar, some stored inside the 20 or so turn-of-the-century outbuildings, and the liquids were kept in hundreds of 55-gallon drums.
The residents also operated a dog breeding business on the mine site, raising hundreds of Rotweiller and Chinese Sharpay puppies for Futures’profit over the years. Herring was ordered to stop allowing their waste to be washed into San Carlos Creek tributaries.
In October 2001 the state EPA Toxic Substances Control and an assortment of county, state and federal law and code enforcement agencies raided the town, uncovering thousands of five-gallon containers filled with old paints and solvents and hundreds of 55-gallon drums filled with unknown hazardous liquids. Thousands of tons of solid waste were piled everywhere.
It took months to analyze samples of some of the hazardous liquids, so the case against Herring wasn’t filed until April. After that, Herring was ordered to get an environmental contract to estimate the cost of the cleanup, another time-consuming hurdle for prosecutors.
In the end, three of the charges that stuck were for illegal disposal, treatment and storage of hazardous waste. Another charge was for the illegal accumulation of solid waste and the last was for water pollution caused by the dog kennel.
The plan the county and Herring come up with to haul away the waste will have to ensure that 36 cubic yards, or 10 tons, of solid waste are removed and properly disposed of every month. The agreement Herring made with the court states that the cleanup must be completed by December 2003, unless the state Department of Toxics Substances Control chooses to give him more time. Geis said the damage is so extensive, it will probably take at least three years to clean it up. The removal includes taking recyclable trash like scrap metal, car skeletons, plastics, glass and tires to proper facilities.
“The idea, whether it’s himself or someone else, he has to remove that amount,” said Geis. “He has to do that for 36 months, even after probation ends, if necessary.”
The property will be subject to search by authorities at any time.
Herring was also given a $50,000 fine, suspended during his three-year term of probation but due immediately if he chalks up any new hazardous waste violations. He also must serve 240 hours of community service, either in Santa Clara County where he lives, or San Benito County. Geis said Herring’s age, 62, was taken into consideration in sentencing.
“He can do anything from soup kitchens to churches to working for a non-profit,” said Geis.
“I think this plea is a very good result,” concluded Geis. “It’s not enough resources to clean it up completely, obviously, and the mine drainage is a separate thing. But in the end, given what he had, it was good to get the 150 grand now.”