State expands mercury warning

Published 11:08 pm Sunday, September 21, 2008

FRANKLIN—Even as environmental officials await signs informing fishermen of mercury contamination in the Nottoway River, a state agency has expanded the warning.

The Virginia Department of Health issued updated fish consumption advisories this week that encompass a wider area of the Nottoway’s tributaries and, for the first time, warn of mercury levels in the Meherrin River.

The Nottoway warnings now extend a distance of about 92 miles from its confluence with the Blackwater River near the North Carolina/Virginia border all the way north to Route 619 near Purdy, including its tributaries, the Assamoosick Swamp, Three Creek up to I-95, Rowanty Creek and Hatcher Run and Arthur Swamp up to I-85.

The Meherrin warnings extend from the Emporia Reservoir Dam south to the state line, including its tributaries, Fontaine Creek up to the I-95 bridge crossing and Mill Swamp up to the I-95 bridge crossing.

The agency warns against eating more than two meals a month of certain fish taken from those rivers, as well as from the Blackwater River all the way from the state line to its headwaters and tributaries.

Recent fish tissue samples taken by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality show that mercury levels in the three rivers “exceed the amount considered safe for long-term human consumption,” according to the advisory released by the health department on Tuesday.

The Meherrin also suffers from high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which are classified as carcinogens by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

High levels of mercury or PCBs in the bloodstream of unborn babies and young children may harm their developing nervous systems, according to the health department. Because of those risks, women who are pregnant or who may soon become pregnant, as well as nursing mothers and young children, are warned not to eat any of the affected species from the two rivers.

Mercury is released into the atmosphere by coal-fired power plants and other industries. A heavy metal, it settles on the ground and washes into rivers around the state.

The department updates its list of water bodies affected by mercury and PCBs each year. Last year’s update expanded the portion of the Blackwater that fell under the advisory and added the Nottoway for the first time.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which is in charge of issuing warning signs to be posted at public points along the rivers, did so this summer for the Blackwater River but has yet to send the signs that are needed for the Nottoway, according to Blackwater/Nottoway Riverkeeper Jeff Turner.

Turner reported in a recent newsletter to members of the local environmental organization that the signs for the Blackwater had been delivered after more than a year. He posted about eight of them at boat ramps and popular fishing spots along that river in July.

“The Nottoway also now has the same mercury problem, but those signs have not been delivered,” he added.

Affected fish species include largemouth and smallmouth bass, bowfin, redhorse suckers, longnose gar, channel catfish, chain pickerel and sunfish taken from the Nottoway River; and largemouth bass, redear sunfish, bowfin, chain pickerel, white catfish, redhorse sucker and longnose gar taken from the Blackwater. The health department warning covers largemouth bass and bowfin caught in the Meherrin.

The state’s advisory signs list the affected species, along with a warning that eating contaminated fish “over time can permanently damage the brain, kidney and unborn child.”

“I will also tell you that even some fish not listed, such as speckled and blue catfish, should be treated the same as the fish listed,” Turner said Thursday. “The reason some species are not listed is because there were not enough samples taken of that species, or they did not test any.”

The pollutant fall to the bottom of the rivers, contaminating the fish as they come in contact with them and building up in fish tissue over time to levels much higher than the level of mercury in the surrounding water. Therefore, the danger is confined to eating fish. It is still safe to swim or ski on the rivers.

The health department also offered some tips for reducing one’s potential mercury exposure:

* Eat smaller, younger fish (within the legal limits), as they are less likely to contain harmful levels of contaminants than larger, older ones.

* Eat fewer or smaller servings of fish.

* Try to eat different species of fish from various water sources.

* Cleaning or cooking contaminated fish does not eliminate or reduce mercury.

Taking the following precautions can reduce the levels of PCBs in fish:

* Remove the skin, the fat from the belly and top and the internal organs before cooking the fish.

* Bake, broil or grill on an open rack to allow fats to drain away from the meat.

* Discard the fats that cook out of the fish.

* Avoid or reduce the amount of fish drippings or broth that are used to flavor the meal.

* Eat less deep-fried fish, since frying them seals contaminants into the fatty tissue.