By John Godbey
Children and women of reproductive age should avoid consuming any largemouth bass from parts of Wheeler Reservoir, and all people should limit consumption to one meal per month, according to a state health advisory.
The Alabama Department of Public Health last week issued its annual fish consumption advisories. In addition to a seven-mile stretch of Wheeler Reservoir, advisories were issued for parts of Bakers Creek and Flint Creek in Morgan County, Round Island and Limestone creeks in Limestone County and Big Nance Creek in Lawrence County.
While only largemouth bass are listed on the advisory for Wheeler Reservoir, the Department of Public Health notes “it is prudent to assume that similar species with similar feeding habits should be consumed with caution.” The advisory recommends a limit of one meal per month, but the department advised in a statement that “women of reproductive age and children less than 15 years old” should avoid eating any fish subject to the advisory.
Most of the fish advisories locally were triggered by high levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), a chemical that for years was used at several local industries. Its most common application in Decatur was for non-stick products. It also is used in firefighting foams.
Literature published recently by the Environmental Protection Agency, in connection with its recommended limits on consumption of PFOS and related chemicals, underlined numerous studies suggesting serious health effects. Studies on animals and human populations exposed to the chemicals showed exposure above certain levels may cause a host of problems, including testicular and kidney cancer, as well as liver damage, immune system effects, thyroid effects and cholesterol changes.
“It’s a tragedy that in 2018 we still have fish that are unsafe for consumption in north Alabama,” said David Whiteside, executive director of environmental nonprofit Tennessee Riverkeeper. “This is a nonpartisan issue. Everyone in Alabama wants clean water.”
Riverkeeper is suing 3M Co. and its subsidiary Dyneon LLC, along with Daikin America, BFI Waste Systems of Alabama, and the city of Decatur, seeking a court order that they clean up contamination in the river from PFOS and closely related chemicals. Whiteside said the case is in mediation. A trial is scheduled March 4, 2019.
The fish advisory at Wheeler Reservoir, which was also issued in 2017, does not affect the Bass Angler Sportsman Society’s choice of tournament locations, said the organization’s national conservation director, but it is of concern.
“The pollution and contaminants are a problem,” Gene Gilliland said. “We certainly encourage the powers that be to prevent or clean up those issues.”
Because BASS tournaments are catch and release, the advisory on Wheeler Reservoir does not have a direct impact.
Ron Mixon, president of Hartselle-based nonprofit Warriors for a Clean River, said he wants to see more aggressive action by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to clean up PFOS and related chemicals in the Tennessee River and mercury contamination in West Flint Creek, near U.S. 31.
“You’ve got people that depend on these waters for protein. They go fishing and add it to their diet,” Mixon said. “We have people in Courtland who know the river is bad, but they depend on the fish to eat. They know it’s not a good idea, but they say it’s better than going hungry.”
Wheeler Reservoir is the source of drinking water for Decatur Utilities and the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority.
DU’s drinking water is drawn from the river several miles upstream of the main contamination points for PFOS and the closely related chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The most recent test of DU drinking water, in February 2017, found no detectible quantities of PFOA or PFOS.
Sixteen miles downstream, however, the story has been different. That’s the location of West Morgan-East Lawrence’s intake. Two years ago the Environmental Protection Agency published a recommended limit on PFOA and PFOS contamination in drinking water of 70 parts per trillion. WMEL responded by issuing a no-drink order. It since has built a temporary filtration system designed to remove the chemicals.
“The temporary carbon system we put in is getting the chemicals out, but I don’t know how long we’ll be able to maintain the carbon filter system,” said Don Sims, general manager of the authority. “For now, it’s working.”
Sims said the problem with the carbon system is the ongoing expense of replacing the filtration material.
“We’ve already had to replace half the carbon at the tune of about $300,000,” he said. “This happened in 18 months.”
Sims said he’s frustrated his customers are getting stuck with the bill for pollutants generated in Decatur. A permanent solution being tested by WMEL involves reverse osmosis, which he hopes will have lower ongoing maintenance costs. He said recent tests of Wheeler Reservoir at the WMEL intake show PFOA and PFOS levels of over 100 parts per trillion. Conventional treatment systems do not remove the chemicals.
Installing a permanent solution must await court approval of a $5 million settlement with Daikin, one of the defendants in a lawsuit filed by WMEL over PFOA and PFOS contamination. The settlement was approved by a federal district judge, but was challenged by a class of WMEL customers who allege they have cancer and other ailments caused by drinking water. The case is pending before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
John Guarisco, a toxicologist with the Alabama Department of Public Health, said the fish advisory is a recommendation, not a mandate.
“The advisory is set to the sensitive populations, but if you want to be more cautious, then feel free not to consume any fish from a water body under advisory,” Guarisco said.