The head of a research team that found high levels of mercury in lobsters at the mouth of the Penobscot River said Thursday that the state had the test results for years but took no action to close the area to fishing until this week.
But a state scientist who reviewed the early findings of that team said the results in 2009 were based on a limited sampling of lobsters and contradicted the state’s own test results from the same period. Officials said the state received no more findings from the team until last year.
The state ultimately accepted the results of a more detailed, 1,800-page report that the research team released last year, which said that numerous lobster samples taken over multiple years showed consistently high mercury readings.
On Tuesday, the state Department of Marine Resources ordered a two-year shutdown of lobster and crab harvesting in a 7-square-mile area where the river meets Penobscot Bay, effective Saturday. The area is only a small fraction of the more than 14,000 square miles in the Gulf of Maine where lobsters are harvested.
Details of how state officials squared their findings in 2009 with those of the research team are just now being revealed, as consumers face the possibility that lobster with high levels of mercury was sold and eaten for years.
The Penobscot River Mercury Study Panel was formed under a judge’s order in a federal lawsuit against the company that was accused of dumping mercury waste into the river starting in 1967 and later into landfills at its plant in Orrington, which closed in 2000.
State officials say that after the research team gave the Department of Environmental Protection its initial findings, it provided no more information on lobsters as it continued its research from 2009 to 2013.
The chief judge for Maine’s U.S. District Court had issued an order preventing the research team from sharing its findings with the public.
Chief Judge John Woodcock Jr. did not respond Thursday to a letter filed with the court asking whether it disclosed a potential public health threat and, if not, why.
The Maine DEP and the federal Environmental Protection Agency recommend weekly consumption of no more than 200 to 300 nanograms of mercury per gram of meat. Tests on lobster tails harvested by the research team in South Verona in 2008 showed levels of mercury exceeding 450 nanograms per gram, the highest levels recorded.
Meanwhile, Chris Whipple, a member of the Penobscot River Mercury Study Panel, told The Associated Press that officials from the Department of Marine Resources, the DEP and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife attended a meeting in September 2010 at which the panel discussed preliminary findings. It’s not known whether the discussion focused on specific species.
“They were somewhat aware of what we were doing,” said Whipple, who works for Environ International Corp., an environmental consulting firm that specializes in radioactive waste, air pollutants and mercury.
EARLY REPORTS ON MERCURY LEVELS
The federal court case began in 2000, when the Maine People’s Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the former HoltraChem Manufacturing Co. and its inheritor, St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt LLC.
After an initial trial in 2002, the court found that Mallinckrodt could potentially be held accountable for cleaning up mercury waste in the Penobscot River. The court ordered the formation of the panel of three scientists in 2003 to research the environmental damage to the watershed in advance of a second trial, now scheduled to begin in Bangor on May 7.
The chairman of the panel, John Rudd, said Thursday that the early results of the first phase of the investigation, in 2008 and 2009, clearly showed heightened mercury levels in lobsters. Those reports were based on lobster samples taken in 2005 and 2006.
“That information has been available now for a number of years,” said Rudd, a Canadian scientist who specializes in freshwater fisheries and oceans. “We put out a preliminary report, the Phase I report. That mercury data is in the report.”
But Stacy Ladner, an environmental specialist for the DEP, said the state’s testing up to 2009 showed that while lobsters downriver from the HoltraChem site had heightened mercury readings in their tomalley – a lobster’s liver – the readings in their tail meat were lower than those in lobster caught elsewhere along the coast of Maine.
“From my perspective, I was looking at a lot of conflicting information,” said Ladner, one of the lead scientists who are seeking to force Mallinkrodt to complete a $250 million environmental cleanup on the plant site.
Ladner said she had been testifying at state hearings against Mallinckrodt in 2009 when the research team issued its early report, which it completed without state involvement.
“We were not a party to the river study, so we are not privy to what they were thinking,” Ladner said.
FINAL REPORT OUT IN APRIL 2013
Jessamine Logan, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said the department didn’t get a copy of the research team’s final report, which was filed in federal court in Bangor on April 19, 2013, until November.
“We had to ask for a copy of that study, and that’s what we did last fall,” Logan said.
The Department of Marine Resources, which is responsible for the fisheries in the Penobscot River and Penobscot Bay, also didn’t receive a copy of the report until November, when the Maine People’s Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council shared it with the department, said spokesman Jeff Nichols.
“We’re thankful that the issue was brought to our attention, and we did take prompt action,” Nichols said.
State Toxicologist Andrew Smith said he was contacted by the Department of Marine Resources in November to assess the research team’s 1,800-page report, and worked with a team of analysts to review it as quickly as possible.
“I don’t think it’s a situation of anyone getting information and just sitting on it,” Smith said. “That was an enormous report.”
Smith said the way the federal court disseminated the report was different from the way it had released the panel’s previous findings regarding mercury contamination.
In 2011, the panel got written permission from an arbiter in the case to bypass the judge’s gag order when it discovered high mercury concentrations in American black ducks from the Lower Penobscot River and Frenchman Bay. That information was forwarded to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Instead of sharing the final report with a state agency, the federal court posted on its docket that the report was available in CD format at the court clerk’s office in Bangor.
“If you put something on the court docket, does that mean it’s out there (in the public domain)? I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s out there,” Smith said. “The good news is, we have it now.”
MERCURY IS TOXIC TO HUMANS
Most lobsters caught along Maine’s coast have less than half the amount of mercury contained in canned chunk light tuna, and less than one-sixth the mercury contained in canned white tuna.
The lobsters in the closed area had higher mercury concentrations than canned white tuna but less than the amounts of mercury typically found in some seafood, such as swordfish or shark.
Mercury is toxic to humans and, in high doses, can attack neurological systems such as the brain, peripheral nerves, the pancreas, the immune system and kidneys. Unborn children are especially sensitive to mercury’s toxic effects, and excessive exposure can lead to mental disabilities, cerebral palsy and nervous system damage.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has advised that pregnant and nursing women and children younger than 8 eat no more than 8 ounces of fish per week, based on guidelines that estimate a safe level for consumption at 200 nanograms of mercury per gram of meat. Two average-size lobsters yield about 8 ounces of meat.
The executive director of the Maine People’s Alliance, the citizens’ group that brought the federal lawsuit against Mallinckrodt, said the state acted quickly to close the area with contaminated lobster.
“We have a lot of problems with the state and we’re happy to point them out. But in this instance, we feel like they did get this information and tried to get the implication of it and acted in a pretty timely manner about the closure of the part of the Penobscot River to lobster fishing,” said Jesse Graham. “I think we should continue to put the blame squarely on the corporation.”
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: