Scientists who claimed that Maine officials knew for years about high levels of mercury in lobsters near the mouth of the Penobscot River reversed their account on Friday, saying they never notified the state about the hazardous mercury levels.
The scientists told two news outlets in separate interviews Thursday that they had shared those findings with state officials in reports issued in 2008 and 2009 and in a meeting in 2010, as they continued to work on a court-ordered study of mercury in the river.
But on Friday, after talking among themselves, the researchers said they had misremembered what information had been made available to the state and when it was made available. They said they realized that while state officials did have some information about above-normal mercury levels in lobsters by 2010, none of the data released to that point showed levels high enough to require immediate action.
Although the scientists had test results from 2008 at a site in South Verona that showed for the first time that lobsters had mercury contamination at more than twice the federal warning threshold for consumption, they did not share that information in either of their written reports or at their meeting with state officials in 2010.
“The information available to the state folks back in 2010 was not something that should have prompted firm action. It’s the more recent data that’s interesting,” said Chris Whipple, a member of the Penobscot River Mercury Study Panel and an environmental consultant for Environ International Corp. who specializes in radioactive waste, hazardous air pollutants and environmental mercury.
Without that 2008 data – which only the study panel and its hired researchers had access to – state officials would not have known to act, he said.
John Rudd, chairman of the study panel, also scaled back a statement he made Thursday to the Portland Press Herald, that information about mercury contamination in lobsters had been “available now for a number of years” to state officials.
“They didn’t have our more recent data until 2013,” said Rudd, a scientist who specializes in freshwater fisheries and oceans and is president of Rudd and Kelly Research Inc. in Canada.
Whipple said his comments Friday differed from those he made Thursday to The Associated Press because another member of the research team contacted him to correct his recollection. He said he had not been contacted by any Maine state official.
The scientists spoke in response to a decision announced Tuesday by the state Department of Marine Resources, which ordered a two-year shutdown of lobster and crab harvesting in a 7-square-mile area where the river meets Penobscot Bay, effective Saturday. The area is only a small fraction of the more than 14,000 square miles in the Gulf of Maine where lobsters are harvested.
The Department of Marine Resources decided to order the closure after receiving the Penobscot River Mercury Study Panel’s final, 1,800-page report in November and seeking a review of the findings by State Toxicologist Andrew Smith and a team of state analysts, which took three months.
The panel was formed under a judge’s order in a federal lawsuit against the former HoltraChem Manufacturing Co., which is accused of dumping mercury waste into the river starting in 1967 and later into landfills at its plant in Orrington, which closed in 2000. Though the panel had completed the report and filed it in U.S. District Court in Bangor by April 19, 2013, state officials said they didn’t receive it until the fall, after the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the Maine People’s Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council, shared it with them.
The federal court case began in 2000, when the two groups sued HoltraChem Manufacturing and its inheritor, St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt LLC, over mercury contamination. The 2013 report is central to an upcoming trial in the case that will start on May 7.
LATEST DATA NOT AVAILABLE IN 2010
Whipple said the members of the study panel held a workshop in September 2010 to explain the scope of what they had been commissioned to investigate. Representatives from the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Department of Marine Resources, the University of Maine, several federal agencies, lawyers and those involved in the lawsuit attended the workshop.
“One of the reasons we held the workshop is, we knew the state agencies were interested in what we were doing because we were doing it in their backyard, and our work was somewhat mysterious to them,” Whipple said.
Whipple said he thought initially, when he spoke to the media on Thursday, that detailed lobster studies had been presented at that workshop. He said he realized on Friday that all of the data shared at the meeting had been collected before 2007.
“At the time of that meeting, we had not done any lobster samples north of Fort Point Cove,” Whipple said.
“Data from South Verona and Odom Ledge were not made available until April of 2013,” Whipple said, referring to areas near the mouth of the river where the researchers found high mercury levels in lobsters in tests from 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012. “The farther north you get, the higher the mercury contamination.”
Rudd said he now agrees with Whipple that state officials did not have the data from studies north of Fort Point Cove until 2013. But he said that data presented before 2010 indicated that lobster samples had mercury readings above 200 nanograms per gram of tissue, roughly the amount of mercury found in a can of white tuna.
LATER READINGS HAD HIGHER LEVELS
Findings released in April 2013 show that lobsters taken from the South Verona sample site in 2008, 2009 and 2010 showed mercury levels ranging from just under 400 nanograms per gram of meat to as much as 475.
Readings from lobsters taken during the same period at Odom Ledge ranged from less than 200 to more than 250 nanograms per gram of lobster meat, according to the panel’s final report.
Smith, the state toxicologist, said 200 nanograms per gram of tissue is “the starting point at which we begin to consider recommending limits on fish/shellfish consumption,” not the point at which consumption should be banned.
“We have a policy that if you cannot eat at least an 8-ounce meal of fish or shellfish per week without reaching the toxicity level, then we will begin to consider issuing an advisory,” Smith said Friday. “We also have a policy that if you cannot eat at least a meal a month, then we say don’t eat any at all.”
Lobsters harvested elsewhere along the coast of Maine have an average mercury reading of about 50 nanograms per gram of lobster meat, he said earlier this week. Two average-size lobsters yield about eight ounces of meat.
“By way of example, if an average level of mercury in fish tissue was around 400 ng/g, we would recommend consumption limits of no more than four ounces per week,” Smith said in an email Friday.
Smith, who was out of the office for part of this week, returned to work Friday to reassess what information the state received from the Penobscot River Mercury Study Panel before last fall and whether the state should have acted differently in light of that data.
“We would have found they could eat about a meal, an eight-ounce meal, per week and we would not have issued an advisory,” Smith said.
OFFICIAL: NO GAG ORDER ON REPORT
The Press Herald sent a letter Thursday to Judge John Woodcock Jr., who is presiding over the federal case, asking him whether anyone involved in the court case had disclosed the discovery of hazardous levels of mercury to the public and, if not, why not.
Eric Storms, chief deputy clerk for U.S. District Court in Maine, said Friday that Woodcock cannot respond to that letter while the case is pending, for ethical reasons. Storms answered some of those questions in the judge’s place.
“The court couldn’t disseminate the report itself,” Storms said. “The court has to be careful not to act as an advocate. This report itself is still in dispute.”
Storms also said that information given to the Press Herald that a gag order had been imposed on parties in the case was inaccurate. The parties to the lawsuit and the panel of scientists, not the court itself, could have disseminated the report.
“The court has expressly allowed the study panel to have contact with other agencies to facilitate their work. It’s just that they have to inform the court about that,” Storms said.
Whipple, reached Friday afternoon to answer follow-up questions from the morning, said he had since been asked to limit his comments about the panel’s work and refer anyone with questions to the published reports of its finding.