Raising alarm on mercury danger; Campaign targets Sudbury River fish

The Boston Globe
July 1, 2010 Thursday


BYLINE: By Megan McKee, Globe Correspondent

SECTION: REGIONAL; West; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 1007 words

Federal environmental regulators this month released a report detailing options for combating mercury contamination in fish in the Sudbury River, the first step toward making the fish safe to eat.

Meanwhile, a regional agency is readying a multimedia, grass-roots campaign to get the word out to fishermen along the river that consuming their catch poses grave health risks, especially to children. The campaign will include 30-second radio spots in Portuguese on Brazilian programs; website and print advertisements in English, Spanish, and Portuguese; and outreach to community groups and churches.

“The hazards of consuming the fish are not getting to everyone who needs to get the message,” said Martin Pillsbury, environmental division manager at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the agency that’s directing the campaign.

Starting in 1917, a 35-acre site in Ashland near the Sudbury River was used for industrial manufacturing, with Nyanza the most notable company to occupy the site. The companies produced textile dyes in a process that used mercury until Nyanza shut down in 1978, according to a federal Environmental Protection Agency report on the Superfund site.

During the site’s 61 years of use, vast volumes of chemical waste were buried in large pits underground, stored in lagoons, or discharged into the river via a small stream known as Chemical Brook. Cleanup at the industrial site has been ongoing since the 1980s, but nothing has addressed the mercury that flowed into the river, settled in its bottom sediment, and made its way in to fish tissue, according to the report.

From 1940 to 1970 alone, approximately 51 metric tons of mercury were released into the river in Ashland, the report said. The Sudbury flows from its headwaters near the Westborough-Hopkinton line through Southborough before it passes the Nyanza site in Ashland, and then continues through Framingham, Wayland, Sudbury, and Lincoln before it reaches Concord, where it joins the Assabet to form the Concord River.

Ingesting mercury can cause significant neurological disabilities in cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills, according to the EPA. The effect is most profound on fetuses, infants, and children, since their nervous systems are still developing.

The report details several options for reducing risks of mercury poisoning, including public-awareness campaigns to stop people from eating its fish, capping tainted sediment, and a complex operation to dredge and clean sediment. The costs range from almost nothing to more than $200 million.

But there is no quick fix for a situation that’s been almost a century in the making, according to the report, which states that reducing the mercury in fish to acceptable levels could take decades.

That’s why the Metropolitan Area Planning Council has been working for more than two years on a multilingual campaign to target audiences they say haven’t gotten the message that it’s dangerous to eat fish from the Sudbury River.

Starting this week, a multimedia campaign – including a website, www.fishing4health.com – will bring that message to local communities.

“It’s a close-to-the-ground, grass-roots effort,” said Pillsbury, who is directing the council’s campaign, and has appeared on WSRO-AM 650, a Framingham radio station that is a popular information source for Brazilians across the area.

“Some top-down, very large, typical campaign wouldn’t reach the community very well,” he said.

The campaign is being funded through a grant from the MetroWest Community Healthcare Foundation, and has been designed with help from a public relations consultant and a Framingham-based translator who is active in the Brazilian community.

In February, Pillsbury and Drita Protopapa, head of MAPA Translations, held a focus group with 10 Brazilian fishermen and their wives to learn what they knew about the contamination, and the broader cultural context in which the fishing takes place.

“The vast majority said they do fish and eat the fish regularly,” said Pillsbury. He said that despite signs on the Sudbury River with pictorial icons warning against fish consumption, the message hasn’t resonated with many fishermen.

“One of them said, `I’ve been living around here for years and I’ve never heard of it,’ ” he said.

Protopapa said combatting misperceptions is the campaign’s goal.

“People aren’t doing it because they can’t buy food,” she said.

She summed up the prevalent attitude: “The Sudbury River looks clean, feels clean, the fish don’t look sick, so how could it possibly be bad for us?”

The campaign was designed with that in mind, and all materials have been geared toward making the message instantaneously accessible and effective.

“It needs to catch their eye right away, that it’s not a joke and it can harm you and your children,” Protopapa said.

Meanwhile, as the public awareness campaign takes shape, the EPA will be gathering public input about the several cleanup options presented in its report.

The reports says that the government could take any of the following actions: rely on public outreach; monitor the natural recovery process; cap contaminated sediment with a thin layer of sand; cap sediment with a clay/polymer barrier; or dredge sediment, remove the mercury, and truck it away.

The report analyzes the options based on several criteria, including long-term and short-term effectiveness, cost, and ease of implementation. The full text of the Nyanza report can be found at www.epa.gov/region1 by clicking on the Superfund link and searching for Ashland.

The public comment period on the proposals opened last week and closes July 26. Everyone is welcome to submit comments, which become part of the project’s official record.

There will also be a public hearing on the proposals July 19 at 7 p.m. in the Framingham Public Library, during which the EPA will receive public comments. The government will decide on a cleanup plan after the public comment period ends.

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com

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