THE ISSUE: The fish advisory issued this month on Wheeler Reservoir is a reminder the EPA is an important tool in finding the right balance between industrial growth and a clean river.
For the third year in a row, beautiful Wheeler Reservoir is under a fish-consumption advisory.
As it did in 2013 and 2014, a fish advisory limiting consumption to one meal of fish per month begins at Decatur Utilities’ Dry Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, next to Ingalls Harbor, and extends seven miles downstream along the south side of the river.
The first advisory began when the Alabama Department of Public Health began testing for PFOS, one of several perfluorinated chemicals once used by several Decatur industries. After the hazards of the chemical became understood, and under pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, most industries switched to less toxic chemicals.
Annual testing of fish tissue since late 2012 has detected high levels of PFOS in largemouth bass caught in the seven-mile stretch of the reservoir, leading to the recommended limits on consumption.
Use of the chemical began in the 1950s, before the EPA existed. Even upon its creation, the EPA was limited in its ability to regulate chemicals already used in industry. It was not until 2002, after the EPA persuaded domestic manufacturers to discontinue use of PFOS, the agency was able to treat it as a new chemical. That classification was important, because it meant industries now would have to provide the EPA with advance notice before manufacturing or importing PFOS.
Unfortunately, producing PFOS is far easier than getting rid of it. Filtering it from water is enormously expensive, and even when successful the problem remains what to do with the filtered sediment.
The Decatur-Morgan County Landfill, which for years received PFOS-contaminated sludge, experienced the filtration difficulties first hand. In 2011, the landfill completed installation of $800,000 in equipment designed to remove PFOS and related chemicals from leachate before it went to Decatur Utility’s wastewater treatment plant and on to the river. The effort was unsuccessful, and the system has been idle since 2013.
PFOS — like several related chemicals still used in U.S. industries, but not considered in issuing fish advisories — has a nasty habit of accumulating in organisms, including fish and people. It takes a human about 28 years to eliminate a single dose of the chemical from the body, but ongoing exposure because of fish consumption or through drinking water means levels continue to rise.
Numerous studies have linked PFOS and related chemicals to conditions including kidney cancer, thyroid cancer, testicular cancer, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, ulcerative colitis and developmental problems in children.
PFOS is not the only chemical triggering area fish advisories. Tissue in fish caught in Morgan County’s Baker’s Creek, Lawrence County’s Big Nance Creek and Limestone County’s Round Island Creek, all had high levels of mercury.
Alabamians love to hate the EPA. Fueled by politicians who receive large contributions from industry, we gravitate toward a states’ rights view that labels any EPA action as federal overreach.
As we look at the gorgeous waterway that borders our community; as we swim in it and catch fish in it; as we marvel at the economic bounty it provides in the form of fishing tournaments and tourism; we might want to re-evaluate our disdain for the EPA.
It was industry, not the EPA, that put PFOS in our river. It was the EPA — not a grossly underfunded Alabama Department of Environmental Management — that orchestrated the discontinuation of the toxin’s use, and prevents its return.
The Tennessee Valley is a case history of the harm unregulated industrial chemicals can cause. Industry is important to our community, but so is a clean river. The EPA is an essential tool in finding the right balance.