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Council Briefed on Fish Contamination,
Asked to Help

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 13, 2002

Tribal officials this week asked the Northwest Power Planning Council and the Bonneville Power Administration to help launch an effort to pinpoint sources of pollutants that a recent study says are contaminating the Columbia-Snake river system, its fish and the people who eat those fish.

Particularly affected are Native American adults, who on average eat nine times more fish than the general public, and young children. Indian children only eat three times, on average, as much fish as the general public, but their smaller body size make them more at risk from the toxins found in the fish.

A study released late this summer says that a wide range of chemicals are present in the flesh of Columbia Basin fish. Many of those chemicals are known to contribute to the risk of a variety of diseases from cancer to heart and respiratory disease. Various of the chemicals can also affect the central nervous, reproductive and immune systems.

The report by the Environmental Protection Agency represents the second in a two-phase study carried out by the agency in concert with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and its member tribes. The first phase, completed by CRITFC in 1994, charted fish consumption of CRITFC member tribes -- Warm Springs, Umatilla, Yakama and Nez Perce. The second phase sought to determine what contaminants were present in fish tissue in the Columbia River Basin.

Federal, state and tribal agencies and individuals were involved in the collection of some 281 fish and egg samples from 1996 through 1999. Chemical analyses were completed in 1999. Samples were collected at typical tribal fishing sites throughout Oregon, Washington and Idaho. The fish sampled included both anadromous species (Pacific lamprey, smelt, steelhead and coho, and fall and spring chinook salmon( and resident species (largescale sucker, bridgelip sucker, mountain whitefish, rainbow trout, white sturgeon, and walleye).

The EPA study found a total of 92 chemicals in Northwest fish, including DDT -- a pesticide banned more than 20 years ago, along with PCBs and heavy metals. The risk of eating fish, the study said, depends on the concentration of the chemicals, the amount and types of fish eaten, how often fish are eaten and the body weight of the person consuming the fish. The report, however, only calculates risk for adults.

The risk of developing cancer from eating contaminated salmon, the study shows, ranges from 7 in 10,000 to 2 in 1,000, depending on where the fish was caught, the size of the person and how much fish they eat. Tribal members who eat resident fish are at an even higher risk of developing cancer. For some locations where sturgeon and mountain whitefish are eaten in large quantities, the risk of developing cancer is as high as 2 in 100.

Certain species of fish and locations produced samples with the highest concentrations of chemicals, EPA's Pat Cirone told the Council Wednesday during its meeting in Spokane.

Generally, the resident fish such as sturgeon, walleye, sucker and whitefish were found to have greater concentrations of contaminants than the anadromous fish, which spend much of their life cycle in the ocean.

"We all need to enter into a dialogue -- where do those chemicals come from," Cirone told the Council.

Tribal officials are alarmed at the extent of the contamination.

"Every fish sample has some level of contaminants," said Lynn Hatcher of the Yakama Nation staff. "The health of some tribal members is probably being affected."

The Umatillas, with an organized task force, and the Yakamas, with a four-year $800,000 grant, have started presenting the information to tribal members regarding the extent of the problem and potential health consequences. While dissemination of the information is a high priority for the Warm Springs and Nez Perce tribes, they have limited capacity -- no staff or funds yet dedicated to the project.

The Yakama Nation recently received the grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to inform its members about the risks of eating contaminated fish. The money will be used to make videos that explain the issue and to train health-care providers about the risks. Further, committees made up of scientists and tribal members will be asked to develop guidelines for how best to present the information.

Additionally, the Yakamas, with another grant from the National Cancer Institute, intend to review medical charts of 400 tribal members who have or had cancer.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation have conducted four public meetings since Aug. 20 to present information about the EPA-CRITFC report. A presentation to the Umatilla General Council in August resulted in a debate between people who believe fish are causing illness and those who maintain that the benefits of salmon outweigh the potential risks. Both sides insist that salmon should remain a staple in the Native American diet.

"I doubt our tribal Council will ever say not to eat fish," Hatcher said. Most feel that should be an individual choice.

The four lower Columbia River treaty tribes -- the Umatillas, Yakamas, Warm Springs and Nez Perce -- have known about the study since initial phases were released two years ago, but have been reluctant to talk about issues that may question tribal heritage, culture and lifestyle.

Cirone and Hatcher both said that a preferred course would be to identify specific sources of contamination and remedy the situation. To do that, of course, will take money.

"The Power Council needs to get involved," as does BPA, Hatcher said. He said that BPA, and Corps of Engineers had a direct impact on the level of toxins in the fish. Bonneville markets power produced in the federal Columbia River hydro system. The Corps operates the hydro projects. Bonneville, through the NPPC process, mitigates for the impacts on fish and wildlife from construction and operation of the dams.

Hatcher used as an example the Bradford Island dump site near Bonneville Dam. It was discovered this past year that the dump site for spent electrical components and other waste contained high levels of PCBs. PCB levels in nearby crayfish were significantly higher than the levels considered safe for human consumption.

"Are there other Bradford Island type dumps at other dams," Hatcher asked rhetorically. The answer, he said, is yes. He said it should be responsibility of the agencies involved to locate and remove toxins. The agencies should also evaluate the impact of contaminants on the health and survival of fish.

Council members expressed concerned about the health impacts, but were uncertain whether the problem fit within the compact's federally mandated responsibilities.

"I worry about mission creep," Oregon Council member Eric Bloch said. He says the Council has its hands full already trying to fulfill its primary missions. The Council was created via the Northwest Power Act to protect, mitigate and enhance fish and wildlife of the Columbia River Basin affected by hydropower dams while also assuring the region an adequate, efficient, economical and reliable power supply.

CRITFC's Paul Lumley that the tribes didn't expect BPA or the Council to assume leadership for any cleanup effort. But there are numerous ways they could help. As an example, there is a need to evaluate the impact of contamination on the fish themselves.

"We need some funding to address some of these fish health issues," Lumley said.

Barry Espenson
Council Briefed on Fish Contamination, Asked to Help
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 13, 2002

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