By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Don't eat the fish - at least, not more than once a week.
The problem of mercury contamination of the country's waterways is on the rise, with fish in more rivers and lakes than ever before containing unsafe levels of mercury, according to a report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which analyzed information in a United States Environmental Protection Agency data base on mercury advisories.
The report, called "Fishing for Trouble," shows that Kentucky leads the nation in the number of river miles under mercury advisory. Ohio, which just this year expanded its advisories to include adults with the usual warning to children and women of childbearing age, checks in at eighth on that list. Nationwide, 43 states have advisories in effect for mercury in fish compared to 27 states in 1993 - a 60-percent increase.
Mercury is a problem in the environment because it does not break down easily. It is ingested by small organisms in the water, which are then eaten by fish. The mercury builds in those fish and is transferred to larger fish that eat the smaller fish. That cycle continues until the fish lands on a dinner plate. Mercury causes neurological damage, particularly in young, developing brains.
"It's a very sad day," said Zachary Corrigan, clean air advocate with USPIRG and author of the report. "Our fish are at the point right now where we are being advised to avoid consumption, so we're already at crisis level - we're already at the point where we need to turn back the clock."
Guy Delius, assistant director for Kentucky's Division of Public Health and Public Health Protection, said it is unclear if mercury is building in the environment or if the state is looking - and finding - it more. That rings true with Dan Dudley, manager of the Water Quality Standards section of Ohio EPA.
"Today, coal-fired plants are major source of emission in the environment," Delius said. "But 20 years ago there were a lot of other sources that have since gone by the wayside because we don't use mercury in those industrial processes. We just don't know how much of that historical legacy of mercury in the water we're still seeing."
Ohio and Kentucky are both in the top 10 of states with the most mercury emissions from power plants. A USEPA report to congress this year said that 60 percent of the mercury emitted into the environment comes from man-made sources, and coal-fired power plants account for half of that.
The report was released against the backdrop of a U.S. Senate subcommittee considering President Bush's "Clear Skies" act, which would cap the amount of air pollution that power plants are allowed to emit nationwide. That plan would replace the current Clean Air Act regulations, which require USEPA to measure emissions from the best-performing power plants and make those the standards.
"The idea that every waterway in Ohio and Kentucky has a public health warning against eating fish is a very telling signal that we are not doing nearly enough to protect public health and the environment," said Glen Brand, of the Sierra Club. "We can do much, much better. The technology exists today to significantly reduce the amount of mercury toxins coming out of smokestacks. What is lacking is the Bush administration's commitment to enforce existing law."
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