State Toxicologist Andrew Smith received an urgent message in 2011: A team of independent scientists had discovered dangerously high levels of mercury in black ducks in a marsh near the mouth of the Penobscot River.

But what Smith didn’t know was that the same scientists had previously conducted tests that showed similarly high levels of mercury from samplings in the same area of lobsters – the source of the state’s multimillion-dollar signature seafood industry – and failed to report their findings.

It took nearly six years for that lobster information to become public.

The scientists had shared early test results from 2006 that showed slightly elevated mercury results in lobster, but neglected to inform state regulatory agencies about more alarming mercury findings gathered from detailed follow-up tests starting in 2008.

After state officials reviewed the full study, which was completed in 2013, they announced last month that a 7-square-mile area where the river meets Penobscot Bay would be closed to lobster and crab harvesting.

The scientists mistakenly believed that they had informed the state years ago about dangerous levels of mercury. State officials say their own testing done in the same region was too limited and did not detect any immediate threat in lobster.

But the fact that consumers in the lower Penobscot River area may have continued to eat lobster with high mercury levels for years after scientists learned of the threat represents a critical breakdown in communication between entities tasked with working to protect the public.

Now, state officials are planning to change the way they conduct tests in the area, to gather many more samples in the now-known mercury hot spots over multiple seasons.

The vast majority of lobsters fished from Maine waters remain safe to eat: The closed area is only a small fraction of the more than 14,000 square miles in the Gulf of Maine where lobsters are harvested.

“I think the thing to remember is that the average level in even the closed area (is) not that much higher than canned white tuna,” said Smith, director of the state’s Environmental and Occupational Health Programs. “If we had issued an advisory, it would have been to limit your consumption to 3 to 4 ounces per week. That’s in the closed area.”

Smith said the overriding concern in closing the 7-square-mile area was for those who might catch lobsters recreationally, since they might fish over and over in the same area near the mouth of the Penobscot. Commercial lobstermen, by contrast, would tend to fish a region rather than just one area.

RESEARCH TEAM IS FORMED

The independent team of scientists was formed in 2003 by order of a federal judge in Maine as a result of a lawsuit brought against the former HoltraChem Manufacturing Co. plant in Orrington. The chemical company had dumped tons of mercury waste directly into the Penobscot River starting in 1967 and later collected waste in landfills on the plant site before it closed in 2000.

The two groups that brought the federal suit, the Maine People’s Alliance and Natural Resources Defense Council, won the first leg of their legal fight against the now defunct HoltraChem and its inheritor, St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt Inc. After a 2002 trial in U.S. District Court in Bangor, a judge found that the chemical company could be held responsible for the costs of cleaning up mercury contamination in the Penobscot River and Penobscot Bay.

The team of scientists, called the Penobscot River Mercury Study Panel, was charged with determining the extent of contamination in the watershed, the feasibility of restoring the body of water and whether the mercury posed an unacceptable health risk to people. The scope of their study included years of testing of sediments and wetland soils, numerous plants and a broad range of animals.

The team got its first results on mercury contamination in lobster in 2006 from samples collected south of Fort Point Cove and downriver from the area that was ultimately closed.

The results were limited, based on sample sizes of one to five lobsters taken from each of four test sites. The results showed that some, but not all, of the lobster meat had mercury concentrations exceeding 200 nanograms per gram of tissue, the threshold set by state and federal agencies as the level at which they would advise people to limit their consumption, according to court records.

The Maine People’s Alliance shared the results from 2006 with state officials after the Penobscot River Mercury Study Panel published them in its first 117-page report filed with the court in 2008. But the state took no immediate action while it awaited results from its own study.

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 of consumption to be 200 nanograms of mercury per gram of meat. Two average-size lobsters yield about 8 ounces of meat.

Smith said he reviewed the 2006 data last month – after the state decided to close the area at the mouth of the Penobscot River to lobster and crab harvesting for at least two years – to see what he would have found if the data were presented to him today.

“We would have found they could eat about a meal, an 8-ounce meal, per week and we would not have issued an advisory,” Smith said.

Mercury is toxic to humans and in high doses can attack neurological systems such as the brain, peripheral nerves, the pancreas, 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.

During that same 2006 time frame, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection was working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to collect its own samples of seven lobsters from the northern part of Penobscot Bay, including from the south end of Verona Island, an area that later was shown to be a hot spot for mercury contamination.

Jim Stahlnecker, a DEP biologist who oversees the state’s marine monitoring program, said his office pays for testing of the lobsters’ tomalley, the green substance in the body cavity that functions as a liver and pancreas, while the EPA funds testing on the meat of the lobsters.

“The mercury level is typically higher in the tomalley than it is in the muscle tissue,” Stahlnecker said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been warning consumers since at least 2008 to avoid eating tomalley because of toxins that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning, regardless of where the lobsters are caught, from South Carolina up the East Coast to northeastern Canada.

So when the state got test results in 2007 showing mercury levels above 200 nanograms per gram in tomalley tissue, Stahlnecker said he wasn’t surprised, but it made him curious to see the EPA’s results for the lobster meat.

It took the EPA until 2010 to complete its portion of the lab testing, which found the sampled lobster had a mercury level of 137 nanograms per gram of lobster meat.

“That wasn’t at the level where we would think about an advisory,” Stahlnecker said. “That didn’t raise a red flag.”

RESEARCHERS MEET WITH THE STATE

While the state officials were still awaiting the EPA findings, the Penobscot River Mercury Study Panel continued testing mercury levels in 2008 and 2009. It expanded its testing to eight sites, including north of Fort Point Cove, at Odom Ledge and off South Verona, where they found the highest mercury readings in lobster meat.

The study panel tested lobster meat differently from the DEP-EPA study, analyzing the claw and tail meat separately.

The 2008 tests found that claw meat rose above the 200 nanogram threshold only at the South Verona test site. None of the claw meat samples from the 2009 study rose above that threshold.

But tail meat samples showed higher mercury levels than claw meat, reaching about 475 nanograms per gram at the South Verona test site in 2008 and about 425 ng/g at the same site in 2009, according to the group’s final report issued in 2013.

The panel was still collecting its 2010 samples when it called for a meeting with state and federal officials in September 2010.

A member of the three-scientist panel said last month that state officials found out at that 2010 meeting about mercury contamination in lobsters, but he later retracted the statement, saying he realized the panel had not released its 2008 and 2009 findings at the meeting.

Stacy Ladner, a DEP environmental specialist assigned to remediation of the former HoltraChem site, said she attended the 2010 meeting and recalled no presentation of lobster data. Up to that point, she had seen only the panel’s 2008 study, which detailed its lobster data from 2006. A subsequent panel report in 2009 also contained no new lobster information.

The focus of the 2010 meeting, she said, was on gathering opinions on different approaches to cleaning up the mercury contamination.

“They wanted to throw out some ideas for remediation. They wanted to see if any of those were non-starters. That was the thrust,” Ladner said.

THE DANGER IN BLACK DUCKS

The Penobscot River Mercury Study Panel did make a point of informing the state about at least one alarming finding while the study was still being conducted.

The panel made a special request in April 2011, asking for permission from the federal court to release a portion of its findings on black ducks before its final report was completed.

Researchers working for the panel had taken samples of black ducks during the hunting season in December 2010 and January 2011 from Mendall Marsh, finding that breast muscle tests showed the ducks had mercury levels at more than three times the state and federal threshold.

The panel shared that finding with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, prompting the state agency to issue a warning that pregnant women and children under 8 should not eat any waterfowl meat taken from that area and that all others should eat no more than two 8-ounce duck meat meals per month.

“Waterfowl taken from the immediate vicinity of Mendall Marsh and from Orrington south to the southern tip of Verona Island may contain high levels of mercury,” the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife said in its warning, which remains in effect today.

Smith said that while he was alerted to the black duck mercury threat, the Penobscot River Mercury Study Panel made no such attempt to notify the state about high mercury levels in lobster.

The panel made no mention of its 2008, 2009 and 2010 findings in lobster until it issued its final report to the court in April 2013.

“My first involvement with the mercury data was in 2011, when we had black duck data coming at us,” said Smith. “Nothing about lobster at that time.”

Smith said he was first alerted in October 2013 that the panel’s final report existed, but didn’t see it until November. He then assembled a team that spent three months analyzing not only the panel’s report but data from each year’s findings that his team requested, as well as additional data from 2012 lobster tests that were completed in December 2013.

Ladner said she learned of the final report during the last week of April 2013, but was unable to get a usable copy from the court until June.

She said that she initially read only portions of the 1,800-page report to prepare for a conference call with the Natural Resources Defense Council about how the findings could be used to force Mallinckrodt to clean up the contaminated watershed.

“There was no mention of biology. It was all about remediation,” Ladner said.

It took months for Ladner to get to other chapters of the study, and it wasn’t until then that she realized the researchers had new data on lobster contamination beyond what had been found in 2006.

DEP officials are now working with the Department of Marine Resources to come up with a new way to test lobsters in the mercury hot spots that will carry on the testing done by the study panel – testing claws and tails separately, from many samples from many test sites. They also plan to test over multiple seasons, rather than the peak summer months the study panel focused on.

“We want to make sure we fill in any data gaps,” Smith said.

Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

sdolan@pressherald.com

Twitter: @scottddolan