A warning Monday by health officials to limit consumption of certain fish from the Columbia River to no more than one meal a week because of contamination has triggered a sharp response from tribal officials, including the Yakama Nation. “Rather then addressing the contamination, we are being told to reduce our reliance on the Columbia River’s fish,” Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chairman Harry Smiskin said in a statement. “This is unacceptable. The focus should not be ‘Do not eat’ — it should be ‘Clean up’ the Columbia River.”
The warning applies to the river’s resident fish, such as bass, sturgeon and carp, that are exposed over their lifetime. Migratory species, such as salmon, are not as affected and are still considered safe to eat.
Issued by the state health departments in Oregon and Washington, the advisories focus on a 150-mile stretch of the Columbia from the Bonneville Dam to the McNary Dam, where elevated levels of mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, have been found in fish.
The advisory has two parts — a strict warning not to eat resident fish at all in the Bradford Island area immediately upriver of the Bonneville Dam, and a more relaxed warning for the larger stretch of river that people should not eat the resident fish more than once a week.
“I’ve never seen anything as high as what we’ve seen in the bass at Bradford,” said Dave McBride, a toxicologist with the Washington Department of Health and lead scientist on the fish advisory program.
McBride said that the record-setting PCB levels near Bonneville are from a dump site on Bradford Island that the Army Corps of Engineers used before people were aware of the hazards of PCBs. Cleanup actions are underway at the site. It’s likely that other dams along the river have similar dump sites that could be contributing to contamination as well, McBride said.
Beyond the Bradford area, the contamination rates in the river are comparable to many other parts of the state, McBride said.
Mercury is a naturally occurring element and a common air pollutant from burning fossil fuels. PCBs are a family of now-banned industrial chemicals. For infants and young children, exposure to either chemical can damage brain development, so the advisories warn pregnant women and young children to take the most strict precautions.
While Smiskin responded to the new advisory by calling on Washington to clean up the river that the Yakama depend on for fish, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, CRITFC, called on the state to set fish consumption levels that more accurately reflect how much people consume, which would lead to stricter water quality standards.
Oregon recently raised its fish consumption standard to 6.1 ounces per day, a level that encompasses 95 percent of people’s diet. Washington’s standard is currently 0.2 ounces per day, which represents only about two servings a month, but the state is in the process of revising it. The American Heart Association recommends two servings of fish a week, and a standard serving is about the size of a person’s palm. Some tribal members eat fish many more times a week.
“The more fish someone eats, the stricter the (water quality) standards need to be to protect them,” said Dianne Barton, water quality coordinator for CRITFC. “We’re hoping to see Washington follow Oregon and raise rates to reflect tribal consumption and that of many other people who eat a lot of fish.”
Cleaning up the contamination in the Columbia is a challenge, Barton said, because mercury and PCBs can persist in the river sediments for so long. Even after all the cleanup work that the Army Corps of Engineers has done at the Bradford dump site, including dredging soil, the fish there are still unsafe to eat.
“It’s a long-term problem,” she said. “More strict water quality standards could drive technological solutions to these problems, we hope.”