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April 14, 1998

GOOD NEWS - Greater Agency Collaboration And Public Participation
BAD NEWS - They Have A Tough Task Ahead

by Edmund Tsang

Most participants at the April 2 meeting of the Citizen Advisory Committee were genuinely optimistic about the state of the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (NEP) and its mission to protect the estuarine system of Mobile Bay. Although more than half the people present at the meeting are still officials (public and private), many citizen participants spoke at the end of the meeting to say they finally feel, after initial skepticism, that "something will be done" as a result of the NEP program.

Danny Calametti, community coordinator for Mobile Bay NEP, summed it up best when he said Mobile Bay NEP has finally gone past "the process phase," in which, to both participants and outside observers, the program seemed to be spinning its wheels. The Mobile Bay NEP is now at a point where everyone who is interested in Mobile Bay can look at the available data on the ecological status of the bay, Calametti said, and make informed decisions on a comprehensive management plan for Mobile Bay.

Calametti reported that the local office of two state environmental agencies, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and the Alabama Department of Conservation & Natural Resources (ADCNR), are now coordinating their monitoring efforts to increase overall monitoring capability. Calametti also said a "Report to Stakeholders" meeting will be held on May 7 at 7 p.m. in the Convention Center to report the results of initial tests conducted to characterize the bay, such as water quality, habitat loss, living resources, and human uses.

Stevens R. Heath, Chief Marine Biologist for ADCNR, said in a telephone interview last week that "we have been investigating the concept (closer collaboration with other state agencies) before, and the Mobile Bay NEP supports that concept very well." Heath also said a primary goal of NEP is for all agencies responsible for monitoring to collaborate with each other. Concerning the collaboration with ADEM, Heath said "when we combine the things we do, we will be able to do more monitoring over a wider area."

John Carlton of the Mobile office of ADEM said that at the May 7 meeting, his agency will officially release the results of a study conducted from 1993 to 1995 to monitor Alabama's coastal waters under its regulatory function. The report will have information on sediment quality of the bay; benthic communities (living species found in the mud of Mobile Bay); and water quality such as dissolved oxygen, nutrient load, clarity and bacteria.

Heath cautions that better monitoring is not a "cure-all." But he thinks one has to be honest about the implications of the data. "We need to be up front about what can be done and what can't be done and say why," Heath said in the interview. "We need to honestly assess the situation to determine what can and can't be done; some solutions would have to get laws changed and some require public education."

The Challenge

In July, 1997, the Alabama Department of Public Health issued an Alabama Fishing Advisory. Because of mercury contamination, a "no consumption advisory " -- meaning "everyone should avoid eating the designated species of fish in the defined area" -- was issued for king mackerel over 39 inches for the entire Gulf Coast of Baldwin and Mobile counties, and a "limited consumption advisory" -- people other than women of reproductive age or children under 15 should eat no more than one fish per month -- for king mackerel under 39 inches. A "no consumption advisory" was also issued for all species caught in Cold Creek Swamp between mile 28 just below Bayou Matche and river mile 26 of Mobile County and for largemouth bass caught in the entire Fish River of Baldwin County because of mercury; and for largemouth bass and channel catfish caught in the Tombigbee River in Washington County at the Olin Basin at river mile 60.5 because of mercury and DDT. According to the State Department of Public Health, the fishing advisory is still valid today.

In January, 1998 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed Mobile Bay on a list of 96 watersheds whose "sediments may be contaminated at levels that may adversely affect aquatic life and human health." The EPA announcement also said most of the watersheds are "already well-known to state and local government agencies and the general public." Chemicals responsible for Mobile Bay's ranking as "probable area of concern" range from heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, chromium and mercury, to pesticides such as the banned DDT, and to industrial chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Recently, the EPA has proposed upgrading nine Alabama stream segments, including Three Mile Creek, Chickasaw Creek and Mobile River from a "agricultural and industrial" classification to a "fish and wildlife" from "industrial" classification. EPA reported that these bodies of river in Alabama are contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins. In proposing the rule change, EPA claims that Alabama has neglected its duty to protect the river systems in the state..

Heath said some environmental problems in Mobile Bay have no solutions at the moment, like the "no consumption advisory" issued by the Alabama Department of Health concerning king mackerel caught in the Mobile and Baldwin county portions of the gulf. It is likely that the mercury contaminants come from outside Alabama and enter the bay through air deposition, Heath said.

But according to Dr. Barry Kohl of the Louisiana Audubon Society, sources of mercury contamination in the Gulf of Mexico area include not only air emissions from municipal incinerators, but most likely also phenylmercury used prior to 1973 by pulp and paper mills to prevent the growth of molds in wood pulp, and also the production of chlorine, which uses metallic mercury as an electrode.


The Harbinger, Mobile, AL