By October, anglers on Lake Wylie could find out just how safe, or unsafe, the fish they catch are to eat.
Unsafe carcinogen levels in fish south of Lake Wylie are shining a light on the entire South Carolina stretch of Catawba River basin, including Lake Wylie. Chuck Gorman with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control Bureau of Water said Friday that polychlorinated biphenlys, or PCBs, are such a problem in Lake Wateree that the state has issued fish consumption advisories there and tested four upstream sites to find the cause. Included in those tests were fish in Lake Wylie.
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“We ended up focusing more of our attention on the Catawba basin,” Gorman said Friday, addressing the Catawba-Wateree River Basin Advisory Commission in Rock Hill. “A lot of people are interested in what we find out upstream.”
Commercial use of PCBs was banned in the 1970s, with the chlorine-based synthetic compound linked, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, to “cancer, as well as a variety of other adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system.” Delayed development in children is a reason women who may become pregnant and small children should not consume PCBs, Gorman said.
“PCBs can remain in the environment for many years, and they can get into the tissue of the fish,” Gorman said. “They actually move with the sediment down the river system.”
Gary Faulkenberry, who represents the Wateree Homeowners Association on the bi-state commission, said the finding of unsafe levels of PCBs in Wateree are curious since there aren’t large manufacturers there. Wateree and Lake Hartwell are the only two lakes in South Carolina currently with fishing advisories because of PCB content.
“Would it not then be an assumption that it came downstream?” Faulkenberry asked.
Late last year, the EPA released data on 500 lakes nationwide concerning PCB concentrations. Despite a lack of commercial production for almost 40 years, all 500 lakes showed the presence of PCBs.
“PCBs are now considered to be ubiquitous,” said Jay Sauber with North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “It’s everywhere.”
Yet of those 500 lake samples, only 17 percent showed PCB levels exceeding federal water quality standards. Lake Wateree made that list. Based on the amounts found and additional state testing, SCDHEC put out an advisory stating largemouth bass from Wateree should be eaten no more than one meal per week, with striped bass and blue catfish not more than once per month.
The state agency also used test results from the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation on Mountain Island Lake just north of Wylie to determine that testing between Wateree and Mountain Island Lake was necessary. Sauber said those same tests showed an increased need for his state testing Mountain Island Lake, with Riverkeeper results putting PCB content in the fish advisory range despite EPA results showing lower concentrations.
Sauber said an additional 12 samples from Mountain Island Lake are in the lab now, but warned PCB content is not as simple as “strictly an upstream to downstream transport.” PCBs can be found in the atmosphere and rain, thus showing up in runoff. Some lakes completely segregated from industrial uses, he said, show PCB content.
“It’s not that simple anymore,” Sauber said.
Gorman said he expects to have Lake Wylie fish results back in October.
“If that dictates us putting out an advisory, we will,” he said.
The results should not prompt no swim advisories, he said. And likely even a fish consumption advisory would allow fish consumption, just not above specific amounts. Gorman’s department prints out 50,000 advisory notices annually, with information at boat ramps and in other locations, such as doctor offices for pediatrics and pregnant women.
Also of interest to both states is the way future tests will be conducted. David Baize with DHEC Bureau of Water said the fish tissue program in South Carolina was cut in half with recent budget cuts. Sauber said his agency still uses the same tools it used in the 1970s to test PCBs. While still accurate, the results at $1,500 per sample cost almost twice as much as the Riverkeeper samples, which cost $880 per sample from an independent lab.
“Their data is just as good as our data,” Sauber said.