February 21

Scientist: State knew for years about mercury-contaminated lobster at mouth of Maine river

He says a panel’s reports in 2008 and 2009 included mercury data from the Penobscot River. But a state scientist says the findings were based on a small sample and contradicted other test results.

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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TESTS FIND ELEVATED MERCURY LEVELS

WHAT’S SAFE TO CONSUME: The Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s criteria recommend no more than 200 to 300 nanograms of mercury per gram of meat per week as safe for human consumption. 

AT GREATER RISK: The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises no more than 200 nanograms of mercury per gram of meat for the most sensitive populations, such as pregnant or nursing women or children younger than 8. 

WHAT WAS FOUND: Tests conducted on lobster tails harvested off the coast of the Hancock County town of South Verona in 2008 found levels of mercury exceeding 450 nanograms per gram. Tests in the same area in 2009 found levels exceeding 400 nanograms. Subsequent tests in 2010 found levels just below 400 nanograms per gram.

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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