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News Feature

Originally published in Community News, February 27, 2014
Mercury levels close mouth of Penobscot River to fishing
Concern raised over proposed dredging 10 miles from closure

A portion of Penobscot River, Maine closed for fishing

Approximately seven square miles of the Penobscot River, shown in the map above, were closed to fishing on February 22 by the Maine Department of Marine Resources due to high levels of mercury found in lobster and crab, connected to dumping by HoltraChem that ended over 30 years ago.

Photo courtesy of Maine Department of Marine Resources

by Anne Berleant

A ban on fishing and lobstering in the Penobscot River from “the most northwestern point” of Wilson Point in Castine to the Fort Point Lighthouse in Stockton Springs took effect on February 22, the Department of Marine Resources announced.

The reason behind the closure is high levels of methyl mercury found in lobster and crabs caught there. The closed area covers seven square miles at the mouth of the river and affects lobstermen based in Stockton Springs and Verona Island who fish in the closed area.

The closure “is largely intended to protect the people who would fish largely and exclusively in that area,” said State Toxicologist Dr. Andrew Smith of the Maine Center for Disease Control.

“I’m not worried about it,” Castine lobsterman Josh Hatch said. He lays his traps south of Cape Rosier; the handful of lobstermen who lay traps in Castine do so in the Castine Harbor—“not anywhere near the closed area,” Hatch said. “There’s not a lot of lobster there.”

The contamination is believed to have come from the former HoltraChem plant in Orrington, north of Bucksport, which manufactured papermaking and other chemicals between 1967 and 1982. The U.S. District Court in Portland ordered a study of mercury levels as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the chemical plant by Maine People’s Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The DMR received notification of the study from a constituent in November 2013 and then obtained a copy of the complete report.

In 2002, the court found that “the evidence clearly demonstrated that the Penobscot River is contaminated with mercury through the mouth of the River and into the Bay. Reliable evidence further established that mercury levels are elevated in Penobscot downriver sediments,” and that mercury is “biomagnifying through the food web.” (Maine People’s Alliance et al. v HoltraChem Manufacturing Co. and Mallinckrodt Inc., 2002).

According to the DMR, the most recent study provided a large number of data points that “gave the State confidence that the samples taken from areas outside of the closure are below action levels.”

“We think of an ‘action level’ as the beginning point where we think about the need to advise or recommend consumption limits,” said Smith. “If someone were to consume more than eight ounces of fish per week containing [that amount], they would exceed the toxicity value that we rely on.” That value is what could harm a developing fetus. “It’s a fairly sensitive measure for a sensitive population.”

The level of mercury found in tissue used for the MECDC to consider a consumption advisory is 200 nanograms, or a billionth of a gram, per gram of tissue. Because there is no maximum mercury level specific to lobsters, the Maine CDC and DMR used action levels for fin fish in making the determination.

“It’s less about whether it’s fin fish or shellfish and more about the dose [of methylmercury] you’re getting relative to the meal you’re eating,” said Smith.

Smith called the closed area a “hot spot,” with methylmercury levels as high as 800 nanograms per gram of tissue found in “a few animals collected out of 100-plus.” The DMR announced the area would be closed for at least two years.

The DMR, Maine CDC and Maine Department of Environmental Protection plan to start collecting lobsters in and around the closed area next summer and the following seasons, Smith said, which will address the question of lobster migration. “If there’s any sort of significant movement, we’ll know something…within a year.”

“Yes, lobster will travel,” said Sheila Dassatt, executive director of the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association. “But by closing that one little area…[the DMR] feels that we should be able to contain [the problem].”

The Downeast Lobstermen’s Association has been “very much in tune” with closure talks, Dassatt said. “We have sat at the same meetings at the roundtable. We have been working all together on the issue.”

For Dassatt and Hatch, the closure at the river’s mouth raises discussion of a proposed dredging project by the Maine Department of Transportation.

The project would remove about 929,000 cubic yards of material at Mack Point in Searsport and dump it elsewhere in Penobscot Bay. The proposed site is about 10 miles southwest from Fort Point and across the Bay from Castine.

The results of the mercury level study raised “concern of dredging up what is laying up at the bottom,” Dassatt said. “If they dredge up, what are they going to stir up?”

The dredging is proposed in order to increase depth and expand the federal navigation channel too accommodate more shipping tankers.

Thirty legislators from the Penobscot Bay area signed a formal letter asking the engineers to conduct a thorough environmental impact study for the project.

“A lot of groups are trying to stop it,” said Hatch.

A public information meeting was held by the U.S. Army Corps, which is planning the project, in Bangor on February 24.

More information on the proposed $12 million dredging project is available here.