Gills Creek the focus of contaminated fish study

Catfish are some of the species prone to build ups of mercury in their tissue over time.
Catfish are some of the species prone to build ups of mercury in their tissue over time. S.C. Department of Natural Resources

The federal government will provide $30,000 to study the presence of mercury in fish that inhabit lower Gills Creek and to make residents in minority communities aware of the dangers the toxin presents.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's grant, announced Wednesday night, is being made in a state where mercury has polluted fish from the Columbia area to the Atlantic Ocean, as well as in some spots in the Upstate. Many people in the coastal plain supplement their diets with fish they catch from rivers that carry mercury warnings.

EPA officials said the environmental justice grant will be used by the Gills Creek Watershed Association to examine the existence of mercury in fish and "communicate those findings'' to people living in Arthurtown, Washington Park, Starline, Eastway Park, Sims and Bluff Estates, according to an EPA news release.

Those communities are at the lower end of Gills Creek, a heavily developed waterway that runs through much of Columbia before emptying into the Congaree River just southeast of town. All told, more than 100,000 people live in the watershed.

“We’re going to see what the mercury levels are,’’ watershed association director Erich Miarka said. “A lot of people eat out of the creek down there.’’

Miarka said other parts of the watershed, including lakes and ponds on the Gills Creek system, have had mercury sampling done, but little research has occurred on the lower end of the watershed. Miarka said the study will be done in conjunction with the University of South Carolina-Aiken and should start in the next several months. Fish tissue will be sampled for the presence of mercury.

Mercury is a powerful toxin that can lead to nervous system disorders and an array of other health problems for people who are exposed over time. It is considered particularly dangerous to pregnant women and young children. Many people are exposed to mercury by eating fish contaminated with the poison. Larger, older fish are the ones most likely to contain high mercury levels.

Mercury comes from a variety of industrial sources, but has been tied in the past 20 years to coal fired power plants. Mercury is among the air pollutants released from the stacks of coal plants. The mercury-tinged air pollution settles back into waterways and builds up in certain species of fish over time, scientists say.

"EPA’s environmental justice grants help communities across the country understand and address exposure to multiple environmental harms and risks at the local level," said Matthew Tejada, director of EPA’s office of environmental justice.

Miarka urged fishermen who drop hooks in lower Gills Creek to call the association. Reach him at 803-727-8326 or erich.miarka@gillscreekwatershed.org

“We want to know where they are fishing and we want to know how much they are eating per week,’’ Miarka said.