The Clean Water Act recommends that mercury not exceed 0.3 micrograms per gram of fish tissue.
West Virginia’s standards are less stringent—0.5 micrograms per gram.
But that’s okay, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection says, because a study conducted in November showed that West Virginians actually eat less fish than the national average.
Mike Arcuri is an environmental resources analyst with DEP’s water quality standards program.
“The more fish people consume in a given area, the lower that number has to be in order to keep the public safe, if that makes any sense,” he said. “And then if people are consuming lower numbers of fish, that number in the fish tissue can be a little bit higher because they’re not taking as much in.”
Mercury is a naturally-occurring element that’s found in air, water and soil. At high levels, mercury can harm the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys and immune system.
Coal-fired power plants were the source of almost three-fourths of West Virginia’s mercury air emissions in 2003, according to a study by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.
Arcuri says the most likely source of mercury exposure however comes from eating fish.
“Well it’s mainly through atmospheric deposition, through snowmelt, rainfall,” he said. “You’ve heard about acid rain and it’s the same situation. It’s a chemical that’s in the atmosphere and when it rains or in snow and fog, it will run off and get into streams. And then it’s bio-amplified up the food chain.”
The mercury-poisoned small fish are eaten by bigger and bigger fish.
By the time humans eat the fish, the amount of mercury has become more concentrated.
Several people at the public meeting weren’t happy with the study, or what it is trying to justify.
If people consume fewer fish, it’s only because the fish are poisoned, says Janice Nease of Coal River Mountain Watch.
“The fact that West Virginia is eating a lot less fish, doesn’t that seem to tell him that we are afraid to eat the fish?” she said. “We tell everyone in our area, and most people in our area would not eat a fish caught out of the Coal River. Or probably any other river for that fact right now.”
Both Nease and her colleague Lorelei Scarbro blame coal mining for at least some of the mercury in the state’s waterways.
“I think it comes through digging and processing of coal, just unearthing the coal,” Scarbro said. “Coal is supposed to stay in the earth. Once you disturb it, there’s all kinds of ugly things that come out of it and we end up consuming.”
Scarbro says poisoned streams have changed coalfield residents’ way of life.
“It’s a shame that we can’t take our children and our grandchildren down to the river, teach them how to fish and then also teach them that if you catch that fish what you do is you consume it, you eat it,” she said.
“You do that for the purpose of supplying food. You don’t do that for sport or to torment the fish; you do it for the purpose of having something to eat. And we certainly can’t do that anymore due to the high levels of contaminants that are in the waterways in the state of West Virginia.”
Studies have found that coal slurry, the liquid that results after washing coal, contains heavy metals including mercury. Coalfield residents say this slurry has contaminated their groundwater and found its way into streams and rivers.
By the way, there’s already a statewide fish consumption advisory for all West Virginia waterways because of high mercury levels.