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Louisiana health department breathes life into mercury program, resumes testing fish for the heavy metal

Mercury contamination

(NaturalNews) Following an eight-year hiatus, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality employees are back in the Atchafalaya River Basin looking for fish that contain unsafe levels of mercury.

The department's mission is to catch fish randomly and test them for mercury contamination, which will then be formulated into data that the state Department of Health will use to issue fish consumption advisories, according to a report by The Advocate. At present the advisories are outdated, as DEQ ceased regular mercury testing of fish – a program that cost state taxpayers $500,000 a year – in 2008 as part of budget cuts to most state agencies under the administration of then-Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Late in 2015, however, the Jindal administration announced that it would resume the testing, and that is now beginning to occur, say officials, who added that workers will begin in southwest Louisiana. That said, environmentalists and other state officials are hopeful that lawmakers and current Gov. John Bel Edwards will be able to come up with more funding to also revive additional aspects of the mercury testing program.

Educating the public

In recent days, and for the first time since 2008, a group of environmental organizations met with state DEQ officials and others with an interest in the project to discuss the mercury program of the past and how it could be revived in the present day.

"We're hoping to get everything geared up and keep it running this time," Al Hindrichs, a DEQ environmental scientist in the water permits division, told The Advocate.

Barry Kohl, who heads up the Louisiana Audubon Council and is a longtime proponent of the mercury program, told the news site that staffers and Secretary Chuck Carr Brown, a onetime DEQ employee until he was appointed this year to head up the agency by Edwards, are all supportive of revitalizing the mercury testing program. Besides examining fish, the groups noted that there ought to be more public awareness campaigns to education state residents about the dangers of consuming fish with higher levels of mercury.

"If the public doesn't understand the problem and don't understand the fish they're eating is contaminated, then we really have a problem," Kohl said.

Adequate public awareness can be as easy as putting cautionary warning signs back in waterways that direct people to the state's guidelines regarding what fish species are safe to consume, as well as obtaining additional information about the annual fishing guide that is published by the state's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said Kohl.

The Advocate reported further:

Other aspects of the program include locating and cleaning up mercury-containing gas meter sites and enforcement of mercury-reduction regulations, Kohl said. But, he added, it all comes down to money and finding a way to pay for the additional work in a department that has seen staffing cuts during the past eight years.

New life

The program's reimplementation comes from a four-year. $1.5 million consent agreement between the DEQ and NRG Louisiana Gathering, which earmarked the money for a beneficial environmental project. And while that level of funding doesn't match the previous level of $500,000 a year before the program was cut – a dollar amount that enabled officials to collect fish samples at 100 sites a year – it is nevertheless a start, officials have noted.

At current funding levels staff will be able to visit about 36 sites in 2016 in the southwestern portion of the state, with at least seven already done, said Hindrichs.

"But we're hitting it where it's important," he told The Advocate.

Officials said that DEQ was first revisiting sites that were on the state's advisory list before, and if there are enough funds left over at year's end, they will next test areas with readings high enough they were close to making the advisory list. Officials have so far not determined which region of the state will be tested next year.





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