February 21

Scientist: State knew for years about mercury-contaminated lobster at mouth of Maine river

He says a panel’s reports in 2008 and 2009 included mercury data from the Penobscot River. But a state scientist says the findings were based on a small sample and contradicted other test results.

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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TESTS FIND ELEVATED MERCURY LEVELS

WHAT’S SAFE TO CONSUME: The Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s criteria recommend no more than 200 to 300 nanograms of mercury per gram of meat per week as safe for human consumption. 

AT GREATER RISK: The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises no more than 200 nanograms of mercury per gram of meat for the most sensitive populations, such as pregnant or nursing women or children younger than 8. 

WHAT WAS FOUND: Tests conducted on lobster tails harvested off the coast of the Hancock County town of South Verona in 2008 found levels of mercury exceeding 450 nanograms per gram. Tests in the same area in 2009 found levels exceeding 400 nanograms. Subsequent tests in 2010 found levels just below 400 nanograms per gram.

“That information has been available now for a number of years,” said Rudd, a Canadian scientist who specializes in freshwater fisheries and oceans. “We put out a preliminary report, the Phase I report. That mercury data is in the report.”

The results of those early reports have been posted on the website of the DEP. It’s not clear how long they have been on the site.

But Stacy Ladner, an environmental specialist for the DEP, said the state’s testing up to 2009 showed that while lobsters downriver from the HoltraChem site had heightened mercury readings in their tomalley – a lobster’s liver – the readings in their tail meat were lower than those in lobster caught elsewhere along the coast of Maine.

“From my perspective, I was looking at a lot of conflicting information,” said Ladner, one of the lead scientists who are seeking to force Mallinkrodt to complete a $250 million environmental cleanup on the plant site.

Ladner said she had been testifying at state hearings against Mallinckrodt in 2009 when the research team issued its early report, which it completed without state involvement.

“We were not a party to the river study, so we are not privy to what they were thinking,” Ladner said.

FINAL REPORT OUT IN APRIL 2013

Jessamine Logan, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said the department didn’t get a copy of the research team’s final report, which was filed in federal court in Bangor on April 19, 2013, until November.

“We had to ask for a copy of that study, and that’s what we did last fall,” Logan said.

The Department of Marine Resources, which is responsible for the fisheries in the Penobscot River and Penobscot Bay, also didn’t receive a copy of the report until November, when the Maine People’s Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council shared it with the department, said spokesman Jeff Nichols.

“We’re thankful that the issue was brought to our attention, and we did take prompt action,” Nichols said.

State Toxicologist Andrew Smith said he was contacted by the Department of Marine Resources in November to assess the research team’s 1,800-page report, and worked with a team of analysts to review it as quickly as possible.

“I don’t think it’s a situation of anyone getting information and just sitting on it,” Smith said. “That was an enormous report.”

Smith said the way the federal court disseminated the report was different from the way it had released the panel’s previous findings regarding mercury contamination.

In 2011, the panel got written permission from an arbiter in the case to bypass the judge’s gag order when it discovered high mercury concentrations in American black ducks from the Lower Penobscot River and Frenchman Bay. That information was forwarded to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Instead of sharing the final report with a state agency, the federal court posted on its docket that the report was available in CD format at the court clerk’s office in Bangor.

“If you put something on the court docket, does that mean it’s out there (in the public domain)? I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s out there,” Smith said. “The good news is, we have it now.”

MERCURY IS TOXIC TO HUMANS

Most lobsters caught along Maine’s coast have less than half the amount of mercury contained in canned chunk light tuna, and less than one-sixth the mercury contained in canned white tuna.

The lobsters in the closed area had higher mercury concentrations than canned white tuna but less than the amounts of mercury typically found in some seafood, such as swordfish or shark.

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