EPA, Public Health cleaning up mercury spill at NW Bakersfield home


BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - The Espera family evacuated their home in northwest Bakersfield this week after they discovered mercury had spilled inside their house.

"It doesn't feel real," Kimberly Espera said Thursday. "I feel like I'm asleep and I'm having this nightmare."

Espera does not know how her son obtained several ounces of mercury but discovered on April 21 that he had taken a glass bottle of the toxic chemical from his bedroom and brought it to the front yard, where it contaminated the ground. That's when Espera called the police.

Police and Kern County Public Health officials responded, and Public Health spent several hours removing contaminated soil from the front yard, testing it repeatedly to ensure no traces were remaining. But, Espera said they never set foot inside her house to check for more mercury.

"They should have checked inside the house. They had the equipment in their hands. I offered, 'Do you want to go check? ' I at the time was kind of amazed they didn't think it was important to go try to find where he had it stored in his room, where it came from," Espera said.

Nine days later, Espera's 16-year-old daughter found a nickel-size amount of mercury on the hallway carpeting outside her brother's bedroom.

When Espera called Public Health to report mercury was inside her home, a quick assessment determined the cleanup would be tens of thousands of dollars, exceeding the budget of the county and state health departments. The federal Environmental Protection Agency stepped in to cover the cleanup.

They found "dangerously high" levels of mercury throughout the home, according to Public Health Director Matt Constantine.

"They should have done a much more thorough job the first time the first time they came out to inspect a mercury spill at my house," Espera said.

Steve Calanog, federal onsite coordinator with the EPA, said he hopes to have the majority of the cleanup completed within 48 hours so the family can return home as soon as possible.

Additionally, Calanog defended the county health department, saying they did a thorough and complete job, despite Espera's claims.

"Clearly, the family is going through a really difficult time, and that is a difficult position for them to be in," Constantine said, adding that, "Unfortunately, this is their responsibility. Somebody in that family brought in something that is dangerous and exposed other family members to it."

Constantine said that he and his team will review the work they did and determine what areas they can improve.

The family of seven is living in separate houses this week, residing with family and friends until they are allowed to return to their house.

The EPA has removed carpeting, furniture, clothing and many of the family's belongings that were contaminated, and the Esperas are worried they won't have much of a home to come back to.

"I can't imagine what it would be live for my house to burn down, but in essence it might have been burned down, because we lived in this house for 18 years, and the last 18 years of my life is just kind of gone right now," Espera said.

The family is accepting donations through their GoFundMe page.

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