Thursday, April 17, 2014
By Scott Dolan and Tom Bell
Researchers who conducted tests have known for at least eight years that lobsters at the mouth of the Penobscot River contained “hazardous” levels of mercury, but consumers were not told until the state announced it this week.
In his garage in Stockton Springs, Ken “Skeet” Wyman, a lobsterman for 26 years, talks about the closure of the fishing area at the mouth of the Penobscot River because of mercury contamination.
Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer
The long-term study that led the Department of Marine Resources to declare Tuesday that it will close down lobster and crab harvesting in a 7-square-mile area shows that lobsters in the area have had mercury levels, year-to-year since 2006, that are higher than the state deems safe to consume.
The banks downriver from the former HoltraChem Manufacturing Co. plant in Orrington still contain mercury, decades after the company stopped dumping chemicals into the waterway leading to the bay, according to the study.
The study, first ordered by a federal judge in 2003 and completed by a team of three scientists in 2013, says that mercury contamination in the sediment and wetlands has been declining slowly since HoltraChem began discharging mercury waste directly into the river in 1967, but is “still high enough to be hazardous” to plants and animals and the people who eat them.
The revelation about contaminated lobsters is a black eye to the state’s most valuable fishery, which has endured low prices in recent years. But the closure of the area where the river empties into Penobscot Bay applies to only a small fraction of the more than 14,000 square miles in the Gulf of Maine where lobsters are harvested.
State Toxicologist Andrew Smith, who was called in to analyze the study’s findings after they were first shared with the Department of Marine Resources in November, said lobsters from that small area had high mercury levels, but 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 of canned white tuna.
“Really, people should have no worries about eating lobster,” Smith said. “They should be looking at it as a seafood (with mercury levels) well below what they typically consume.”
Mercury is toxic to humans and, in high doses, can attack organs and 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.
STUDY FINDINGS SLOW TO COME OUT
The court-ordered study stemmed from a lawsuit brought in U.S. District Court in Bangor against HoltraChem, which is now defunct, and its inheritor, St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt Inc., by the Maine People’s Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Those groups sought to hold the chemical producer liable for its pollution of the Penobscot River and Penobscot Bay. The lawsuit has been ongoing since 2000, when the HoltraChem plant in Orrington closed.
After a trial in 2002 in which Mallinckrodt was found responsible for the pollution, Judge Gene Carter, who is now retired, ordered the formation of the study panel. The study’s findings will be used in a second trial in the same case, scheduled to start in May, to determine what Mallinckrodt must do to clean up the damage to the federally protected waters.
By the 1980s, HoltraChem had created five secure landfills on the site of its plant to contain mercury brine sludge. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has since ordered Mallinckrodt to complete a $250 million cleanup of the site, a decision that Mallinckrodt appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. The court heard oral arguments in that appeal last week and has not said when it will rule.
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