State will test for PCBs in Lake Wateree fish

Federal data show elevated toxin levels

sfretwell@thestate.comDecember 13, 2009 

State biologists will begin testing fish at Lake Wateree next year for PCBs, a suspected cancer-causing pollutant that federal data show has tainted predator species in the popular reservoir.

Wateree was one of the 17 percent of lakes tested nationally in which fish registered PCB levels above a federal health safety standard this decade, according to data released last month by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control - charged with warning the public if fish are unsafe to eat - says it wants to know more about PCBs in the lake 30 miles northeast of Columbia.

"Testing will give us better information," DHEC spokesman Thom Berry said. "Once we do that, it will give us more data in which to make some conclusions."

The federal data were collected eight years ago for a baseline report assessing chemicals in fish at 500 lakes across the nation. DHEC apparently has not checked Lake Wateree's fish for PCBs routinely since the 2001 federal tests.

Officials with the state agency said in a Dec. 4 e-mail to The State that they had gathered some data in the 1990s on PCBs. But the e-mail said they did not think the levels were enough to warn the public about eating Lake Wateree's fish. The agency had no "available" data since 2001, the e-mail said.

Berry could not say last week if the agency would issue advisories against eating some types of fish at Lake Wateree. The lake now has no advisories telling people to limit fish consumption. He said DHEC had not tested in some cases because of "a resource issue," but the department has recently hired a laboratory worker to do that.

THE DANGER

PCBs, short for polychlorinated biphenyls, are manufactured chemicals once used extensively by industry as coolants and lubricants.

They can settle into waterways through air or water pollution and, over time, build up in fish. Production of PCBs was banned in the United States during the late 1970s as evidence mounted that they were dangerous to people's health. Scientists have found PCBs to cause liver cancer in laboratory animals, and the EPA has classified PCBs as a probable human carcinogen. The chemicals also can cause developmental problems in children, including a decrease in short-term memory, and impair children's immune systems.

Lake Wateree is the second major reservoir in the Midlands found by the EPA to have elevated levels of a contaminant in fish tested, according data used to compile the Nov. 10 baseline study.

At Lake Murray, largemouth bass showed elevated amounts of the toxic metal mercury, according to the data. DHEC testing since 2000 verified elevated mercury contamination in 40 percent of the bass tested at Lake Murray, although the agency said the pollution levels weren't consistent enough to warrant health warnings.

The EPA's national study found some level of mercury or PCBs in fish from every body of water tested across the country. In addition to Lake Wateree, Lake Hartwell in Anderson County also fell within the 17 percent of lakes with PCB levels in game fish above the health standard of 12 parts per billion. Another 49 percent of the lakes contained mercury levels in game fish that were above a federal health standard, including Lake Murray.

State officials for years have warned of high PCB levels in Lake Hartwell. But people familiar with Lakes Murray and Wateree were surprised that fish there also showed elevated contaminant levels.

"I don't think PCBs were on anyone's radar," Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman said.

PCB levels in largemouth bass at Lake Wateree registered 80.223 parts per billion, more than six times the health safety standard used by the EPA in its November report.

The testing was done on largemouth bass and carp; EPA officials caution that the sampling was limited.

Still, the findings could spur action at the state level, according to the EPA.

"The results can only indicate where a state may consider doing additional monitoring to determine whether or not issuing a fish advisory is appropriate," EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones said in a Dec. 3 e-mail to The State newspaper.

A POTENTIAL BLOW

The findings at lakes Wateree and Murray are a potential blow to recreation and tourism at both of the popular waterways.

Like Lake Murray northwest of Columbia, Wateree is filled with weekend boaters, anglers and swimmers during the summer. Thousands of people also live or own weekend homes along its 242-mile shoreline, which touches Kershaw, Fairfield and Lancaster counties.

The 13,000-acre lake is one in a string of man-made reservoirs along the Catawba River from north of Charlotte to near Camden. It was built in 1920, initially to provide hydro-electric power for Duke Energy customers. Lake Wateree drains into the Wateree River, which flows past the newest, easternmost section of Congaree National Park. The Wateree then joins the Congaree River to form the Santee River above lakes Marion and Moultrie.

Merryman, the riverkeeper for the Catawba River watershed, said the EPA's recent report shocked him.

"In this report, Wateree has some really high readings; they are quite drastic," Merryman said. "DHEC needs to get in there and find out what these concentrations are. If those levels the EPA found are true, we need fish advisories."

Merryman said DHEC should have been checking fish before now to ensure public safety.

"This is DHEC being non-aggressive and kind of overlooking an issue they really should be tackling," Merryman said.

Dick Foote, chairman of a Lake Wateree citizens committee that monitors water quality, would also like to know more.

"What does it mean overall? And what does it mean in the long term?" he asked. "I'm a little concerned when we jump to conclusions."

Merryman noted that Wateree was one of three lakes on the Catawba River chain with high PCB levels in fish tested for the 2009 EPA report. Lakes Norman and Mountain Island in North Carolina were the others, he said.

North Carolina hopes to test those lakes for PCBs, said Douglas Campbell, branch chief of the Tarheel State's occupational and environmental epidemiology division.

Merryman suggested that Lake Wateree may be suffering PCB contamination in fish because it sits at the bottom of the Catawba River chain. Charlotte is the largest city in the region, and the surrounding metropolitan area continues to develop, even in tough economic times.

Berry said he didn't know why PCBs would have shown up in Lake Wateree's fish. But some reports have indicated the toxic chemical was dumped into the lake during the 1940s as part of an effort to kill mosquitoes, The State reported in 1997.

In 1997, DHEC investigated reports of PCB-laden transformer oil being put into the lake, but Berry could not say whether the agency concluded the dumping had occurred.

Officials with the N.C. Division of Water Quality suggested the EPA report contained errors on the levels of PCBs found in lake fish there. Some of the laboratory samples may have been contaminated, the agency's Susan Massengale said in an e-mail Friday to The State.

Denise Keehner, an EPA official familiar with the study, said federal scientists verified the data before publishing the report.

"We had extensive quality assurance and quality control," she said.

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.

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