February 22

Scientists back off claims that Maine officials knew about mercury-tainted lobster years ago

A day after saying state officials knew lobsters near the mouth of the Penobscot River contained unsafe levels of the toxin, researchers say the officials had older information that did not warrant issuing consumer alerts in 2010.

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Scientists who claimed that Maine officials knew for years about high levels of mercury in lobsters near the mouth of the Penobscot River reversed their account on Friday, saying they never notified the state about the hazardous mercury levels.

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An unidentified lobsterman tends to his traps in this 2002 file photo.


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The scientists told two news outlets in separate interviews Thursday that they had shared those findings with state officials in reports issued in 2008 and 2009 and in a meeting in 2010, as they continued to work on a court-ordered study of mercury in the river.

But on Friday, after talking among themselves, the researchers said they had misremembered what information had been made available to the state and when it was made available. They said they realized that while state officials did have some information about above-normal mercury levels in lobsters by 2010, none of the data released to that point showed levels high enough to require immediate action.

Although the scientists had test results from 2008 at a site in South Verona that showed for the first time that lobsters had mercury contamination at more than twice the federal warning threshold for consumption, they did not share that information in either of their written reports or at their meeting with state officials in 2010.

“The information available to the state folks back in 2010 was not something that should have prompted firm action. It’s the more recent data that’s interesting,” said Chris Whipple, a member of the Penobscot River Mercury Study Panel and an environmental consultant for Environ International Corp. who specializes in radioactive waste, hazardous air pollutants and environmental mercury.

Without that 2008 data – which only the study panel and its hired researchers had access to – state officials would not have known to act, he said.

John Rudd, chairman of the study panel, also scaled back a statement he made Thursday to the Portland Press Herald, that information about mercury contamination in lobsters had been “available now for a number of years” to state officials.

“They didn’t have our more recent data until 2013,” said Rudd, a scientist who specializes in freshwater fisheries and oceans and is president of Rudd and Kelly Research Inc. in Canada.

Whipple said his comments Friday differed from those he made Thursday to The Associated Press because another member of the research team contacted him to correct his recollection. He said he had not been contacted by any Maine state official.

The scientists spoke in response to a decision announced Tuesday by the state Department of Marine Resources, which ordered a two-year shutdown of lobster and crab harvesting in a 7-square-mile area where the river meets Penobscot Bay, effective Saturday. The area is only a small fraction of the more than 14,000 square miles in the Gulf of Maine where lobsters are harvested.

The Department of Marine Resources decided to order the closure after receiving the Penobscot River Mercury Study Panel’s final, 1,800-page report in November and seeking a review of the findings by State Toxicologist Andrew Smith and a team of state analysts, which took three months.

The panel was formed under a judge’s order in a federal lawsuit against the former HoltraChem Manufacturing Co., which is accused of dumping mercury waste into the river starting in 1967 and later into landfills at its plant in Orrington, which closed in 2000. Though the panel had completed the report and filed it in U.S. District Court in Bangor by April 19, 2013, state officials said they didn’t receive it until the fall, after the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the Maine People’s Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council, shared it with them.

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