Wed, Feb

Fish Mercury Poisoning Warning Goes Statewide in West Virginia

West Virginians should limit their consumption of fish from all state rivers and streams because of high levels of mercury poisoning, state regulators announced Monday.

Dec. 14—West Virginians should limit their consumption of fish from all state rivers and streams because of high levels of mercury poisoning, state regulators announced Monday.

The statewide advisory — the first of its kind in West Virginia — warns residents not to eat more than one meal per week of all sport fish except rainbow trout.

For some species, including bass and catfish, state officials advised as few as one or two meals per month.

The general advisory also continues fish consumption warnings for dioxin and PCBs for 17 rivers and lakes, including the Kanawha, Ohio and Potomac rivers.

State public health, environmental and natural resources officials announced the much broader fish warning on mercury after a two-year study found widespread mercury contamination of state waterways.

In that study, state officials found levels of mercury that warranted consumption advisories in 78 percent of the streams sampled, said Bill Toomey of the state Bureau of Public Health.

"We didn't have any information, and now we have a pretty good bit," said Pat Campbell, an assistant director with the state Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Water and Waste Management.

Still, the DEP lists only about 17 waterways as being impaired by mercury pollution.

If DEP does not include the streams on its official "impaired waterways" list, regulators have no way to force a cleanup.

"There is no mechanism for cleaning up these streams," said Margaret Janes, senior policy analyst at the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. "The fish advisories have no regulatory impact whatsoever."

Mercury is a highly toxic metal. When emitted into the air, it can fall with rain, enter water bodies and move up the food chain to humans.

In West Virginia and in the United States at large, coal-fired power plants are considered the largest source of mercury emissions. Those emissions remain unregulated. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is under a court order to issue new mercury regulations by mid-March.

Mercury can cause neurological problems, and is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and unborn children. A federal study found that between 300,000 and 600,000 of the 4 million babies born in the United States in 2000 may have been exposed to "unacceptable" levels of methyl mercury because their mothers ate a diet rich in fish.

On its Web site, www.wvdhhr.org/fish/default.asp, the public health agency provides detailed explanations of the advisories, and how to calculate the size and frequency of meals that include sport fish from West Virginia waters.

The agency warned that the advisories "should not be viewed as law or regulation."

"It is intended to help anglers and their families make educated choices about where to fish, what types of fish to eat, how to limit the amount and frequency of fish eaten, and how to prepare and cook fish to reduce contaminants," the agency said in a news release.

Bret Preston, a fisheries program manager for the state Division of Natural Resources, told The Associated Press, "I don't think the message is people should stop fishing. I think the message is people should be careful about what they are eating."

In 1998, federal regulators began questioning why West Virginia had no fish consumption advisories for mercury. At the time, most surrounding states had mercury-based consumption advisories.

In 2001, DEP obtained EPA funding for a statewide survey of the levels of mercury and PCBs in fish. Nearly 400 samples from 56 water bodies were collected.

State officials received the final study in May 2004. Since then, officials have been privately debating whether to issue a statewide or a more limited advisory.

"It's a bittersweet thing to me," Campbell said Monday.

"I'm glad we were able to get the money and do the study so we could answer these significant questions," he said. "But the bitter part is we do have fish with levels of contaminants that warrant low-level advisories."

Campbell said that DEP does not list all streams with mercury fish advisories in its impaired streams database because the state's water quality standard for mercury is outdated.

Currently, Campbell said, the state's legal limit on mercury is 0.5 parts per million in fish tissue. Fish advisories are issued based on lower levels than that, and EPA recommends the state use 0.3 parts per million as a legal limit on mercury in fish.

"The 0.5 number in the state rule is obviously outdated," Campbell said. "It's something that needs to be updated."

Campbell said such a change would have to be made by the state Environmental Quality Board, and approved by the Legislature.

Over the last few years, lawmakers have been trying to strip the environmental board of its rulemaking authority. Industry lobbyists allege the board writes rules that are too tough and expensive to follow.

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© 2004, The Charleston Gazette, W.Va. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.