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Residents warned of mercury found in fish

Mary Ann Thomas
| Sunday, Nov. 4, 2007

After finding high levels of mercury in fish sampled in the Kittanning section of the Allegheny River, a University of Pittsburgh professor is advising adults against consuming fish caught there or five miles upstream and downstream more than once a month.

And pregnant women should not eat the fish period, according to the researcher.

Last week, Conrad Daniel Volz, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, Center for Environmental Oncology, released preliminary results from a study showing mercury contamination in channel catfish in the Allegheny River at Kittanning to be about three times higher than catfish in Pittsburgh.

Volz's findings raise questions about what is causing the pocket of high mercury contamination of fish in the Kittanning section of the river, warranting further investigation to confirm the source of pollution.

Officials from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the state Department of Environmental Protection declined to comment on Volz's study until they examine his findings. Regardless, mercury continues to pose serious problems in state waterways. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission advises that fish caught in state waters be eaten only once a week because of unsafe levels of mercury.

The state of Pennsylvania produces the second highest amount of total mercury emissions in the country, according to DEP. And the state is awaiting final approval from the Environmental Protection Agency to impose new regulations that are stricter than federal rules in limiting mercury emissions, DEP spokeswoman Helen Humphreys said.

Mercury pollution is generated primarily by coal-fired electric plants. According to the Pennsylvania Health Department, excess mercury is particularly dangerous to children and pregnant women, and has been linked to nervous system disorders, kidney and liver damage and impaired childhood development.

"We have to find out the distribution of contaminants in the fish in the Allegheny River," said Volz. "The more fish we take and get a better distribution for -- the more likely we are to find the sources of contamination."

His study is part of the Allegheny River Stewardship Project, an effort by leading researchers, working with citizens of the Alle-Kiski Valley river communities, to determine the sources and types of river pollutants by monitoring the levels of toxins in fish in the river.

John Arway, chief of the environmental services division of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, said it's not surprising to see three times the mercury in one area of the river rather than another.

"There's a lot of variables connected with how much mercury accumulates in fish -- the size of the fish, habitat, the location -- whether it's downstream or upstream from a discharge," Arway said. "We collect bottom-feeding fish and those that live higher in the water column. Also contaminants can settle in different areas of the river."

Arway, who is a member of the commission's Fish Consumption Advisory Technical Group and has sat on boards examining state mercury emissions regulation, said he will examine Volz's results, compare the information with the agency's existing data and determine if the commission will collect samples from the Kittanning area to confirm the findings.

Source of mercury pollution

The Reliant Energy facility, a coal-fired electric plant in Springdale, could be a potential source of the mercury pollution, Volz said. Since the study team found mercury along with high levels of selenium and arsenic, the combination provides a "fingerprint" indicating pollution from coal-fired electric plants.

An official from Reliant said last week the company has not seen Volz's report and that the plant is in compliance with air and water permits. Additionally, Reliant is investing in a $250 million project to remove between 80 percent and 90 percent of the mercury from the facility's emissions.

The DEP agreed the contaminants found by Volz are the result of the coal-combustion process.

"The information that they are gathering or plan to gather over the course of the study, I'm certain will be valuable, and I hope it will be available to us and the public," Humphreys said. "But, I don't see how at this time, that the assertion can be made that the high mercury is the result of any one facility that burns coal."

Volz and Humphreys agree that there could be multiple sources including downwind pollution from coal-fired plants in Ohio. But Volz said the Reliant plant is suspect because of prevailing winds on the Allegheny River, citing the "river valley effect." "Anyone who canoes on the Allegheny River, going downstream in the afternoon, they have to paddle hard because the upstream wind is blowing," he said.

Volz's study will continue to examine more fish in the Allegheny, looking to pinpoint pockets of contamination problems.

"We know that the mercury level in fish is quite high in Kittanning, but how far above Kittanning does that go• What about Freeport and Springdale?" he said. "We need to sample in more locations with more fish to learn about concentrations and range of contaminations."

Who is eating the fish?

While Volz's study results from Kittanning can sound alarming, some anglers don't see it as a problem.

"A lot of guys release their fish anyway," said Mark Transue, 52, owner of Transue's Tackle in West Kittanning. "I'm hoping that the study doesn't affect the fishing and people just release their catches. And I think people are releasing more now than they ever did. They carry cameras and they can take a picture of a big catch with their phones."

Matt DeMichele, 33, partner of Allegheny Bait and Tackle in Tarentum, explained, "Guys who keep fish catch walleyes and saugers. And the guys who catch catfish throw them back in. There aren't too many people who want to eat catfish out of the river."

Volz believes a significant number of anglers -- estimated in the thousands -- eat their catches.

"They catch and eat fish at the Highland Park Dam, by the U.S. Steel Edgar Thomson Plant along the Monongahela at Braddock and close to sewage treatment plants, power plants and steel mills," he said.

In one of his previous studies, Volz found that anglers from minority and low-income groups as well as Amish and Mennonite sects were most likely to consume fish from the Allegheny River valley.

Besides economics, eating a fish catch is a long-standing tradition, just like eating deer meet. During some of Volz's focus group sessions with local anglers, Volz observed, "Some people got upset and wanted to know why they couldn't eat fish from "our own waters."

Volz will continue his fish studies until 2009 and is seeking volunteers from the communities along the river to help with the project.

Additional Information:

Seeking info

Conrad Daniel Volz and his colleagues want to know what residents believe to be the most important pollution activities that are occurring or have occurred in the past affecting water quality in the Allegheny River. These water problems can be the result of air pollution, land runoff or direct pollution of the water, according to Volz. Please describe where and when or over what time period the pollution has occurred, and what the most likely source is. If you have stories regarding pollution accidents, river dumping, fish kills or any other information that you think is useful for the research, please write Volz. Please do not include your identity. Mail your pollution information and/or stories to: Conrad (Dan) Volz, Bridgeside Point, 100 Technology Drive, Suite 564, BRIDG, Pittsburgh, PA 15219-3130

If you would like to volunteer to assist in this project, contact Volz by at e-mail Learn more about Volz's work online .

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