Louisiana To Revive Mercury Testing Program

BATON ROUGE (AP) — State regulators are reviving a program to test the mercury levels of fish caught in Louisiana waters, providing consumers with updated warnings for the first time since 2008.

         Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality staff in January will begin taking a fresh look at fish in waters put on a contamination advisory list before the state stopped testing.

         The Advocate’s Amy Wold reports the four-year, $1.5 million program will start in southwest Louisiana, with about 50 sites expected to be tested in each region each year.

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         The state is buying or repairing equipment needed for the renewed collection work. The laboratory work will be done at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.

         Regular mercury contamination testing halted in 2008 as part of a series of budget cuts by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

         Proponents criticized the move as the destruction of a program that provided valuable information about the safety of fish caught across Louisiana, from Pearl River to Henderson Lake to the Toledo Bend Reservoir.

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         Without up-to-date sampling, critics said, Louisiana residents couldn't be sure about the potential hazards of the fish they were catching and eating.

         Earlier this year, DEQ and the Jindal administration defended elimination of the $500,000 program. Chance McNeely, a DEQ assistant secretary, said the program had run its course and the agency would return to it periodically to recheck areas that were under advisement.

         While McNeely previously didn't provide a timeline for when testing would resume, he recently decided it was time to again sample and monitor the state's fish populations. He found a new funding source in a 2012 consent decree with NRG Louisiana Generating, which runs the Big Cajun II power plant. The company agreed that the $1.5 million in the decree for a beneficial environmental project could be used for mercury testing, so the program will be funded for the next four years.

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         Tom Killeen, administrator of DEQ's inspection division, said some of the information in advisories that spell out the amount of fish that is safe to eat is based on testing from a decade ago.

         Many of the fish consumption warning signs put up at boat launches around the state are missing or shot up, so instead of replacing them, it was time to see if things had improved or remained the same, he said.

         Barry Kohl, adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Tulane University who was involved in pushing for a mercury program, celebrated the program's return.

         "It's very important to continue sampling because we have almost 10 years of very good data," he said. Although years went by without the collection of any information, getting fish testing started again is a good step, he said.

         Mercury poses a public health concern because it can seep into the aquatic, swampy areas and transform into methylmercury, which gets into the food chain. The compound accumulates in fish tissue and, if consumed by people at a high enough rate, can cause health problems with nervous systems and kidneys, especially in children.

         Fish sampling for mercury in Louisiana started in 1989 in the Ouachita River. High levels were detected there, prompting testing around the state.

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