Could Rising Mercury Levels
by Phil Ferolito
Yakama tribal member Johnny Jackson figures he eats fish at least twice a day. Maybe more.
While mercury and other toxins found in Columbia River fish may be putting him at risk, he refuses to abandon tribal tradition.
"I think my people will always be eating salmon," said Jackson, chief of the Cascade band of the Yakamas. "It's the first food on the table. It's No. 1 in our culture."
Mercury, a long-lasting chemical that accumulates in the food chain, can cause neurological damage, learning disabilities and memory loss. But its effects on tribal members -- some of whom eat fish up to 10 times more than non-Indians -- remains unknown.
"My fear is that one of these times, none of our traditional foods is going to be safe to eat," said tribal fisherman Wilbur Slockish Jr., hereditary chief of the Klickitat band of the Yakamas. "A lot of development isn't geared toward health; it's geared toward economic benefit. Health is the least concern."
Much more than just food to the Yakamas, salmon are a sacred tie to the land. According to Yakama belief, the salmon offered itself as food so that man could live on earth. The fish is honored at many ceremonies throughout the year.
How much is too much?
Although Northwest Indians consume anywhere from four to 10 times more fish than non-Indians, Indians who strictly follow tradition eat even more, said Dana Davoli, a health risk assessor with the federal Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle.
"There are tribal members eating a lot more than that," she said. Indians eat, on average, 2 to 13.7 ounces of fish daily compared with 0.6 ounces for non-Indians, according to a study by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
For that reason, they may be more at risk from mercury in the fish.
Mercury can come from a variety of sources. The biggest emitters near the Columbia River are Portland General Electric's coal-fired plant in Boardman in Eastern Oregon and Ash Grove Cement Co. in Durkee, about 10 miles south of Baker City, Ore. Initially airborne, the mercury eventually ends up in waterways.
It's not clear if the two plants are the leading source of the mercury in the river.
But most mercury in salmon and steelhead is suspected to have come from the Pacific Ocean, where high concentrations have been found in tuna and swordfish, said Oregon state public health toxicologist Dave Stone.
"We know it's there. We know it's in the fish," said David Bray, EPA assistant director of airway and toxins in Seattle. "But where (it's) coming from is still a question."
The highest concentrations of mercury in Columbia River Basin fish are found in bass and northern pikeminnow, he said.
The Oregon Department of Health Services warns fishermen to limit consumption of those fish from the Willamette River, and has also issued warnings on crayfish and shellfish on the lower Columbia River.
Washington has issued similar warnings on bass statewide, and on walleye from Lake Roosevelt.
Of all Columbia River Basin fish, salmon and steelhead appear to have the lowest concentrations of toxins, including mercury, Stone said.
But that's of little comfort for tribal members who consume significant amounts of those fish.
Mercury levels in salmon and steelhead vary greatly in the Columbia Basin. Levels in most of those fish fall within federally acceptable limits -- but not always. Among the highest measurements were spring chinook on the Klickitat River, where some fish were discovered with concentrations as high as 0.51 parts per million, exceeding EPA's consumption advisory level of 0.30 parts per million.
Stone said the health benefits of eating salmon and steelhead outweigh the risk. But others say the federal limits for mercury -- as well as other toxins, such as pesticides and other metals -- are based on average consumption rates and don't account for those eating significant amounts of the fish.
"What EPA said is a safe level is a level based on people eating less fish," said Oregon Environmental Council program director Laura Wise. "If you're protecting people, which ones are you going to protect?"
During a water quality summit last week in Pendleton, Ore., leaders from the Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes told EPA officials that calculations for the average fish consumption rate need to be increased before contaminant issues could be accurately assessed.
It wasn't the first time Yakama tribal leaders have asked the EPA to research possible health effects of Columbia Basin contaminants on tribal members, said Russell Jim, manager of the tribe's Environmental Restoration and Waste Management program.
"Basically, they said they didn't have any money," he said.
Setting new standards
New federal law promises to decrease airborne mercury from the nation's coal-fired power plants from roughly 48 tons to 15 tons by the year 2018.
But Northwest tribes, including the Yakamas, and a host of environmental groups want it done faster.
The law applies only to coal-fired plants, which are considered one of the largest single sources of mercury. Requirements are still being hammered out for cement manufacturers, another major source of airborne mercury.
Portland General Electric's coal-fired plant emits about 180 to 220 pounds of mercury annually, said company spokesman Steve Corson.
Of that, about 10 to 15 percent ends up in the river, said Jerry Ebersole, hazardous air pollutant analyst with the Oregon state Department of Environmental Quality.
There's no estimate on how much of the cement plant's mercury reaches the river, he said.
A global problem
Getting a handle on mercury, which is more of a global problem, isn't going to be easy, Corson said.
Studies indicate that much of it is wind-blown from Asia, and work is still being done to determine whether the mercury in the Columbia River is from local or global sources, he said.
"The question is where does it actually fall out of the sky and end up in the food chain," Bray said. Either way, the Yakamas support a proposal to drastically reduce emissions by 2010.
"It's a way of getting around being responsible," said the tribe's Columbia River environmental program coordinator, Rebecca Elwood. "I think the heart of this thing is environmental justice."
Mercury isn't the only concern, Jim said.
Numerous contaminants from pesticides to dirty storm water and even radioisotopes from the Hanford nuclear facility are making their way into the river.
"If there is damage to resources, then there has to be damage to people, especially the indigenous people that rely on the natural resources, foods and medicines," Jim said. "There are numerous issues tied to this."
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs