State regulators are reviving a once-successful program to test the mercury levels of fish caught in Louisiana waters, providing consumers with updated warnings for the first time since 2008.
Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality staff this January will begin taking a fresh look at fish in waters put on a contamination advisory list before the state stopped testing. The four-year, $1.5 million program will start in southwest Louisiana, with about 50 sites expected to be tested in each region each year.
The state is buying or repairing equipment needed for the renewed collection work. The laboratory work will be done at the University of Louisiana at Monroe by some of the same staff who worked on the program years ago.
Regular mercury contamination testing halted in 2008 as part of a series of budget cuts across state agencies by Gov. Bobby Jindal, who had recently taken office. Proponents criticized the move as the destruction of a program that provided valuable information about the safety of fish caught across Louisiana, from Pearl River to Henderson Lake to the Toledo Bend Reservoir.
Without up-to-date sampling of fish tissue, critics said, Louisiana residents couldn’t be sure about the potential hazards of the fish they were catching and eating.
Earlier this year, DEQ and the Jindal administration defended elimination of the $500,000 program. Chance McNeely, a DEQ assistant secretary, said the program had run its course and the agency would return to it periodically to recheck areas that were under advisement.
While McNeely previously didn’t provide a timeline for when testing would resume, he recently decided it was time to again sample and monitor the state’s fish populations. He found a new funding source in a 2012 consent decree with NRG Louisiana Generating, which runs the Big Cajun II power plant. The company agreed that the $1.5 million in the decree for a beneficial environmental project could be used for mercury testing, so the program will be funded for the next four years.
Tom Killeen, administrator of DEQ’s inspection division, agreed that it’s time to reboot, saying some of the information in advisories that spell out the amount of fish that is safe to eat is based on testing from a decade ago.
Many of the fish consumption warning signs put up at boat launches around the state are missing or shot up, so instead of replacing those signs, it was time to see if things had improved or remained the same, he said.
Barry Kohl, adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Tulane University who was involved in pushing for a mercury program, celebrated the return of the program.
“It’s very important to continue sampling because we have almost 10 years of very good data,” he said. Although years went by without the collection of any information, getting fish testing started again is a good step, he said.
Now the state can see whether there has been any improvement in Louisiana waters, which is a possibility, as two of the largest producers of mercury pollution, chlor-alkali plants in Lake Charles and St. Gabriel, switched to a process that doesn’t utilize mercury.
“We have to continue to monitor to measure if the positive changes we’ve made has made a difference,” Kohl said.
Mercury poses a public health concern because it can seep into the aquatic, swampy areas and transform into methylmercury, which gets into the food chain. The compound accumulates in fish tissue and, if consumed by people at a high enough rate, can cause health problems with nervous systems and kidneys, especially in children.
Because of these concerns, the fish consumption advisories around Louisiana are issued by the state Department of Health and Hospitals. They recommend limits on how much certain types of fish should be eaten from particular waters.
Al Hindrichs, an environmental scientist senior at DEQ in the water permits division, said the goal is to do the testing in areas under advisories, which includes 48 locations around the state. In addition, he said there is a good chance there will be additional money available to sample more widely, particularly in waters that were close to reaching advisory levels the last time testing was done.
Any given advisory involves multiple testing sites to get a good snapshot of what’s going on in the fish population, as well as choosing the large fish specimens where the potential to accumulate mercury would be the highest.
Fish sampling for mercury in Louisiana started in 1989 in the Ouachita River. High levels were detected, prompting testing around the state. Gov. Mike Foster and Gov. Kathleen Blanco supported the work through funding, eventually evolving into the $500,000 program paid for out of the general fund.
But the Legislature also passed a law mandating that the program had to be funded by either state tax dollars, grants or donations. In 2008, DEQ and the Jindal administration decided to eliminate most general fund dollars from the agency’s budget, which meant it would rely almost entirely on fines and fees. At that point, the fish testing program was stopped.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.