A mercury mystery that has baffled city and county health officials has left a toxic trail through the streets of Martinez that crews are continuing to clean up this week.

The latest development in the saga occurred Wednesday afternoon when officials found mercury near Rankin Park where Buckley Street hits a dead end in Martinez, Contra Costa Health (CCH) said.

Elemental mercury (Hg) appears as a shiny liquid at room temperature. Its vapors are harmful when inhaled. About a pound and a half of the substance was spilled outside the Martinez Amtrak Station on May 8, 2023, from an undetermined source. (Wikipedia)

CCH said a team immediately conducted cleanup operations at the site after confirming the presence of the chemical, which has been found on city streets since the spill was first detected Monday at the nearby Amtrak station after a city garbage truck serviced the location.

A CCH spokesperson said Wednesday no mercury was found in the park, and no one has contacted the department about health problems possibly connected to the spill.

The same city garbage truck that collected trash at the Amtrak station also serviced the Rankin Park area, CCH officials said.

Hazardous materials crews are decontaminating parts of streets in the Martinez downtown area where mercury has been found. CCH estimated the cleanup would last until Thursday or Friday and that people in the area should expect rolling street closures.

The Amtrak station remained closed without an estimated time for reopening. Amtrak has been using the old train station a few blocks away at Ferry Street and Marina Vista Avenue.

Pinpointing the source

Authorities have said the spill, which was first detected in the train station parking lot, spread to the train platform and inside the station as well.

Matthew Kaufmann, CCH deputy health director overseeing the hazmat team, said Tuesday night a trash receptacle outside of the train station showed “very high readings” for mercury, “indicating that a large amount of mercury was present in this trashcan at one point in time.”

Maintenance crews emptied the trashcan into a truck around 9 a.m. Monday. The truck continued on its route, where the county discovered more mercury contamination.

CCH put out a health advisory for areas of downtown Martinez near the station where officials found “minor” mercury contamination on streets including Marina Vista Avenue, Alhambra Avenue, Buckley Street and Berrellesa Street.

A map shows the area of Martinez affected by a mercury spill that was first discovered Monday near the Martinez Amtrak station and parking lot. (Contra Costa Health via Bay City News)

Officials initially estimated there was a pound to 1.5 pounds of mercury spilled, but that amount has not been confirmed.

“What we can say is we are able to monitor for mercury in the air, which is really the primary concern. What we have found is about 1,000 times less than it would be to be considered immediately dangerous to life and health,” Kaufmann told county supervisors Tuesday.

County health officer Dr. Ori Tzvieli said Tuesday night mercury can become more dangerous when its vapors build up indoors, with pregnant women and children being particularly susceptible.

YouTube video
Contra Costa Health officials discuss the mercury spill that originated outside the Martinez Amtrak Station on Monday. (Contra Costa Health/YouTube)

CCH asks anyone who thinks they may have stepped in areas where mercury has been found to put their shoes in a plastic bag, then put that bag in another bag and put the bag outside. Then call the county’s hazardous materials team at 925-655-3200 for further instructions.

They also say it is important people don’t try washing their shoes or clothing, which could spread contamination.

CCH is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Amtrak and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board to further assess the situation and do more monitoring.

The Martinez Police Department is investigating how the mercury ended up near the train station.