JOHNSONVILLE — Randy Stone of southern Florence County has eaten fish all his 59 years.
Lots of fish. From local rivers.
“We got the Pee Dee, the Little Pee Dee, the Black River, the Black Mingo, Lynches River. They all come right together here. The Waccamaw River, too,” Stone said.
The area is one of the state’s last Edens, a place of trees and shade and winding rivers, the water sliding by, sometimes muddy and sometimes so clear you can see the fish below.
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Eating those fish is what Stone loves most.
Trouble is, what he loves gave him mercury poisoning, his doctor says.
Though it’s hard to say with 100 percent medical certainty, Daniel DeCamps, Stone’s longtime doctor, said Stone’s symptoms are consistent with a classic case of mercury poisoning.
“I feel his high mercury levels are attributed to the fact he ate so much (local) fish,” said DeCamps of Lake City.
Stone describes it this way: “I just felt so bad, had hair loss, fatigued, just got to the point where I could hardly go. I couldn’t remember things.” He also had terrible joint pains.
Stone is a farmer, hunter and river guide. He thrives on being active. To be so weakened is a nightmare.
His ailments are why Stone is wary about Santee Cooper’s proposed coal-fired power plant.
The power plant, which would be about eight miles from Stone’s Johnsonville farm, would send at least 93 pounds of mercury into the air each year, according to the latest proposal from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Much of the mercury — no one knows for certain how much — would fall back down locally.
Fish in local rivers already have so much mercury that DHEC warns residents to limit their fish consumption.
Stone doesn’t want any more mercury in the rivers. He doesn’t want anyone else to get as sick as he has been.
Most of his life, except when he was a soldier in Vietnam, Stone ate local fish he caught about four times a week, a pound or two each time.
“I just like the taste of fish,” Stone said.
In about 2000, when he started ailing, he went to the doctor. DeCamps couldn’t find anything wrong.
Later, Stone saw a television show about mercury poisoning and how it could be caused by eating mercury-laced fish. It described his symptoms, from dizziness to aches to memory loss.
“A light come on,” Stone says. “As quick I could get an appointment, I went to Danny (DeCamps). I asked him if it could be mercury, and he said, ‘Yes.’ He ran a test. It came back real high.”
Stone learned more. He checked with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which published a list of mercury-tainted fish.
One of Stone’s favorite fish, the blue catfish, wasn’t on the list. So he switched to “blue cat.”
He still didn’t get better. Then he learned DHEC hadn’t tested blue catfish for mercury. So he stopped eating that kind, too.
Over time, by sharply cutting his fish intake, Stone got better. He also took chelation treatments, which helps the body eliminate heavy metals such as mercury.
“I still don’t think I feel normal. I’m still dizzy a lot,” he said.
“The thing about fish with the mercury in them is they still have a good taste to them. You’d never know the mercury is there. If the mercury turned them red, that would be something. But this is something you can’t see and you can’t feel.”
Stone didn’t see warnings posted where he fished. DHEC sent notices to the media for years but didn’t post warnings until this spring, after Charleston’s Post and Courier newspaper reported on mercury found in residents’ blood.
Many locals, including a lot of lower-income people, depend on the rivers for food, Stone said.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of people around here that’s got mercury in them but just don’t know it.”
Mercury poisoning can cause permanent damage to the nervous system. Women and children are especially susceptible. Unborn children can be severely harmed by their mothers’ meals of fish.
Fish in the Pee Dee region’s slow-moving rivers are especially tainted with mercury. The rivers’ chemical composition increases fishes’ ability to absorb mercury.
DeCamps says mercury can affect different people differently. Stone’s blood levels were four times higher than accepted safe levels, DeCamps said.
Stone said Santee Cooper’s power plant would be good for his economically depressed area. If Santee Cooper has to spend a little more money to keep more mercury from the air and the rivers, it would be worth it, he said.
“We need the plant. We need the jobs. We just don’t need the mercury.”