State agency denies request to test levels of mercury in fish

Appeal: The environmental group Great Salt Lakekeeper says it will fight the ruling
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An environmental group says it will fight a state ruling that blocks an independent study of toxic mercury in fish from the Great Salt Lake Basin.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), in consultation with the Department of Health and the Division of Water Quality, rejected a permit request by the group - the Great Salt Lakekeeper - to catch fish for the mercury analysis.

"It really boils down to years of opposition by the Division of Water Quality to citizen monitoring," said Jeff Salt, whose group is part of a nationwide coalition of 137 organizations focused on protecting lakes, rivers, bays and coastlines.

The state says it is already working on solving the mercury puzzle and doesn't want the public to be confused by studies that might conflict.

The Great Salt Lakekeeper proposed a mercury-testing program last spring that would require capturing 2,000 fish from streams and lakes that drain into the Great Salt Lake. The fish would be tested by a federally certified laboratory in North Carolina that has been doing mercury analysis for years.

Tests done by the U.S. Geological Survey and announced in February showed the lake has the highest levels of mercury pollution ever found in the environment. There has been a scramble ever since to determine the extent of contamination and what should be done.

Mercury becomes toxic in the form of methylmercury and builds up in the food chain. Anyone exposed to high levels is at risk of brain and nervous system damage. The unborn and children are particularly susceptible. For Utahns, the greatest risk of exposure is probably from eating fish from contaminated lakes and streams.

State agencies have invited Salt to join their statewide effort to address mercury pollution, a working group that includes state and federal agencies, environmental groups, fish and duck clubs, and representatives from the mining and electric-power industries. The state is also stepping up its own fish-testing and analysis.

But John Whitehead, a DWQ environmental scientist, said Salt has insisted on his own testing program.

"We're concerned we have competing interests here," said Whitehead, who noted that Salt is seeking funding from the same sources as the state-sponsored group.

In a letter denying the Great Salt Lakekeeper's fish-testing request, the DWR's Suzanne McMullin noted that the state agencies have the responsibility to collect fish samples, analyze them and report results to the public.

"Your proposal could be counterproductive and conflict with the cooperative mercury in fish tissue monitoring program being developed by the three responsible state agencies," the letter said.

An appeal can be heard by a special wildlife committee under the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). And that panel's decision can be taken to the state Wildlife Board.

McMullin emphasized that the agencies involved are pushing for a comprehensive, credible study that will help the state convey what's at stake for the public. "I don't think they are trying to block information," she said.

But Salt said the state is afraid of looking bad.

"DNR's denial is nothing more than an orchestrated smokescreen to keep the people of this state from finding out about mercury levels in their waterways and fish," he said. "The state doesn't own a monopoly on gathering natural resource information, and they don't have any legal basis for denying us the permit."