Great Lakes waterfront report: Progress stymied on fish consumption

By Danielle Emerson

LANSING, Mich. – Michigan officials report at least fair progress in the state’s water quality with the exception of one measure: ensure fish that are safe to eat.

The state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment recently detailed five measures of success in efforts to improve water quality. The study –which has measured mercury levels of northern pike in inland waters since 1984 – gave progress in lowering the risk of eating fish a “poor” rating, stating, “There has been essentially no change over time.”

But the question remains as to why, in more than 25 years, the ability to ensure safe fish hasn’t improved.

Joe Bohr, of the state’s fish contaminant monitoring program, explained, “There hasn’t really been an overall reduction in the atmospheric deposition of mercury.”

Maggie Fields, head of the mercury division of its Office of Pollution Prevention and Compliance, said coal-fired power plants are the biggest contributors of mercury in the air.

The most direct source of mercury deposits in water, however, is dental amalgam, which dentists use for teeth restorations and dyes.

Bohr said fish with the most contaminants are in the western end of the Upper Peninsula, and that although the levels are not as high in the Lower Peninsula, they remain high enough to be a health concern for consumption.

Christine Aiello, the DNRE official overseeing the Great Lakes areas of concern for the Clinton, Detroit and St. Clair rivers in southeastern Michigan, said mercury isn’t the biggest problem facing the Clinton River, which discharges into Lake St. Clair.

Specifically, the Clinton and St. Clair rivers have PCB contaminants, which contribute to wildlife and fish degradation, or worse, their loss, according to Aiello.

“We have as much of a handle on the waste from industrial sources as we can,” said Aiello.

Industries seeking to dispose of their waste in a river need state-approved permits detailing which contaminants will be disposed of and how much.

Aiello said the department is more concerned with ways to contain contaminants from sources like stormwater runoff and sewage overflows.

The fight for Michigan’s water quality is not over, according to Fields. She said the department has seen a reduction of mercury emissions, but not enough.

For instance, a 2008 law will require dentists to discharge dental amalgam into a separator that is at least 95 percent efficient when it takes effect full effect in January 2013.

Moreover, although mercury in products like thermometers, thermostats and medical instruments is now prohibited, it remains in older equipment.

A 2008 law says state agencies should avoid purchasing products containing mercury or mercury compounds, but only if an alternative exists or isn’t too costly.

Aiello said the Clinton River Watershed Council submitted four funding proposals to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a project overseen by the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration.

“The projects are mostly for habitat restoration and stormwater education about the best management and practices,” said Michele Arquette-Palermo, watershed and stewardship director of the council.
Arquette-Palermo also said the council would use the money to implement a remedial action to remove contaminants from the Clinton River.

“A dam removal project is planned for the North Branch of the Clinton River to restore 93 miles of fish passage by reconnecting the main stream of the river to the headwaters,” said Aiello.

She added that streambank restoration and soil control measures have been implemented in the watershed to help restore fish and wildlife habitat.

DNRE’s Bohr said much is left to do in the regulation and containment of mercury emissions before water quality can get any better.

“Even if local sources are reduced, we still have mercury falling out from other sources,” Bohr said. For example, even though fly ash from coal plants is being contained, if it gets reused in cement it will re-emit mercury into the atmosphere.

And Fields said, “There’s a lot of interconnection with mercury. For example, if dental amalgam isn’t separated from water, it may settle into a sludge on land, which will continue to emit into the atmosphere and so on.”

Legislation to regulate, reduce or eliminate the use of mercury-containing products passed the House, but is stalled in the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee.
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