by Pia K. Hansen and Dan Richardson

Manito Getting Hammered -- SPOKANE -- Auto-infatuated hooligans regularly go to Manito Park, one of Spokane's public jewels, for their off-road driving fix. They've churned lawns into mud half a dozen times since this summer. That's bad enough, says Chief Horticulturist Steve Gustafson, but now someone is literally hammering the park to pieces.

Vandals armed with screwdrivers have chipped off letters engraved on the George Washington monument in recent months, says Gustafson.

"They've almost made the lettering on the Washington monument unreadable," he says. "Money can't replace that. It's just so brainless."

In the most recent outrage, last weekend, someone armed with a hammer or similar object jumped the fence surrounding the Japanese Garden and struck the base of a large, valuable decorative stone lantern.

Given that in the last half-year alone, vandals have also broken off park plaques, churned up thousands of dollars' worth of grassy ground and killed one of the swans that swims in the park's pond, Gustafson is left almost speechless.

Police arrested two youths this fall, and the vandalism apparently abated, but not for long. Now Gustafson is racking his brain to come up with ideas for more effective security.

"We're open to anybody's suggestions," he says.

There are occasional park patrols, but they clearly lack the presence to deter vandalism. One family that lives adjacent to Manito donated $3,000 for a security fund.

Problem is, says Gustafson, wiring a motion-activated lamp can cost $1,000. Money, of course, is tight. Whatever the Parks Department spends on security comes out of running the parks. And even with a heftier budget, some obvious ideas like fencing might not work.

"We can't fence off the whole park," says Gustafson. "That's unacceptable. Then the vandals win."

To make monetary donations to Spokane parks' foundation for repairs or security measures, call 625-6774.

Falling Mercury? -- SPOKANE -- There ought to be a law against throwing away a thermometer. That's what a coalition of Washington environmental groups believe, and they're proposing bills in the state legislature to accomplish just that. The mercury in items like older thermometers, thermostats, automobile switches and medical devices can create toxic pollution that harms young kids and pregnant women.

That's why the state should pass a law outlawing mercury devices and regulating the disposal of mercury, says Gregg Small, director of the Washington Toxics Coalition. Small's group is a chief proponent in the anti-mercury coalition.

Already, bills to reduce mercury in the environment are wending their ways through the State House and Senate, with a Senate hearing scheduled for Friday.

"With mercury, like most toxic chemicals, it's very difficult to say this particular person was exposed to this particular chemical at this particular time and suffered this particular problem," says Small. "The exposure happens over time."

For most people, the worst mercury exposure comes from eating fish, which absorb the toxin from incinerated mercury. Some 41 states have issued 2,200 fish consumption warnings based on high mercury levels in the past decade, according to Small.

Reducing mercury exposure is certainly a healthful goal, says Jim VanDerslice, a Department of Health epidemiologist. Like lead, mercury is a "bioaccumulant," meaning it doesn't break down over time, but gets concentrated as it moves up the food chain -- as from fish to humans.

"There's really no disagreement that mercury is toxic," says VanDerslice. So legislation to reduce the toxin makes sense, he says. "It's a question of how much we'll see the effect and how soon we'll see it."

Small contends that the cost of switching to non-mercury alternatives, such as digital thermometers, are minimal. The proposed bills would place the cost of collecting and recycling mercury devices on the manufacturers, such as automobile manufacturers having to pay to car salvage workers to specially collect mercury switches so they don't get incinerated or thrown in landfills.

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