Fish in the lazy, blackwater rivers of South Carolina are poisoned with some of the highest levels of mercury in the country, according to a new federal study that reinforces concerns about the toxic metal’s impact on the Southeast.
The U.S. Geological Survey report, the most comprehensive to date on mercury pollution in the nation’s rivers, found mercury in every fish tested across the country from 1998 to 2005. Of those, 27 percent were so polluted they exceeded a federal standard for the safe consumption of fish, the report said.
The study found that largemouth bass in the North Edisto River of South Carolina had the nation’s second-highest concentration of mercury. Researchers took the fish from a stretch of the river near Fairview Crossroads, a tiny community near the Lexington-Aiken county line.
The report renewed fears in South Carolina about mercury-polluted fish and prompted a call for state regulators to redouble their efforts to attack the problem. Mercury can damage the nervous system and cause learning disabilities in developing fetuses and young children.
“This is all coming together to tell us what the mercury problem has really been in this state,’’ said Mike King, a Florence County activist critical of state efforts to protect anglers from eating mercury-tinged fish. “People of all color and persuasions are fishing and eating the fish. And they are ingesting mercury.’’
Rivers in other Southern states, including North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana, were also among those plagued most by fish with high levels of mercury, the report found.
Mercury contamination in Southern rivers comes from air pollution that rains back down to earth, largely from coal-fired power plants and other industrial sources, the researchers said. The high acid content of Southern rivers, coupled with the abundance of wetlands and abundant rainfall, makes conditions right for mercury to build up in fish, said David Krabbenhoft, one of the report’s authors...
The USGS findings come as the state-owned Santee Cooper power company continues to push for a new coal-fired power plant on the banks of the Great Pee Dee River in Florence County. The multi-billion dollar power plant would release mercury near a river with fish already contaminated by the toxic metal...
Nationwide, from 1998 to 2005, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey collected and tested more than 1,000 fish from 291 stretches of waterways.
While some of the highest levels in fish were detected in the remote blackwater streams along the coasts of Southern states, mercury also was found in high concentrations in the Northeast — and in Western streams where mining occurs. The highest mercury concentrations nationally were in fish in a Nevada stream...
Earlier this year, the Obama administration said it would begin crafting new, tougher regulations to control mercury emissions from power plants after a federal appeals court threw out plans drafted by the Bush administration and favored by industry. The EPA also has proposed a new regulation to clamp down on emissions of mercury from cement plants.