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Sick Fish Discovered in Va. River

By Charles Babington and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 13, 1997; Page A01

Virginia officials said yesterday that they have found sickened fish in the Rappahannock River like those that prompted Maryland to close a Chesapeake Bay tributary this week. But they said they do not believe that there is a human health threat or that the river should be closed.

Although some fish caught in the Rappahannock bear sores typical of those caused by the toxic microbe Pfiesteria piscicida, Virginia officials said, there is no cause for alarm because the microorganism probably has been present in the river for years, without killing fish or harming people.

Virginia officials said they believe humans face health risks from Pfiesteria only when the microbe kills fish, instead of just sickening them.

That put Virginia squarely at odds with Maryland, which has viewed the microbe as potentially dangerous even in the absence of a fish kill. A Maryland team of medical experts found that the microbe caused memory loss, nausea and other health problems among some people exposed before and during a fish kill last month in the Pocomoke River on the Eastern Shore.

On Thursday, Maryland closed Kings Creek on the Eastern Shore after fish with Pfiesteria-like sores were found stricken, but still alive, in the waterway. Maryland investigators wore protective suits, gloves and respirators while taking fish and water samples from the creek to guard against possible exposure to Pfiesteria toxins.

Maryland officials say they will close waterways if 20 percent of sampled fish -- dead or alive -- show lesions typical of those caused by Pfiesteria.

Virginia left the Rappahannock open after officials last week found such lesions on 50 percent to 75 percent of hundreds of menhaden -- not a fish people eat -- said Eugene Burreson, research director at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Workers who collected the fish with lesions waded into the water wearing shorts, and so far none has complained of headaches or rashes, typical symptoms of people suffering from the microbe's toxic form, Burreson said.

"I'm all in favor of erring on the side of caution," he said, "but we just don't know enough to suspect that there's a problem."

The mouth of the Rappahannock is about 45 miles across the bay from the Pocomoke, part of which has been closed since thousands of fish died in two kills last month.

The two states' differing positions reflect in part scientists' uncertainty about the effects of Pfiesteria on humans and about how it changes from its typically benign state into a toxic form that attacks fish. In investigating Pfiesteria, Maryland has taken an activist approach that has drawn praise from environmentalists and the North Carolina scientist credited with discovering the microbe.

Officials of the administration of Virginia Gov. George Allen (R) said each state must determine its own response.

"Why don't we close the whole Chesapeake Bay system down?" Frank L. Daniel, Tidewater director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, asked rhetorically. "You just can't do that. . . . This is not a competition between Maryland and Virginia. We have not seen any evidence to close the Rappahannock."

Added Daniel, "We have to be careful we don't start knee jerking, that every time we see lesions on fish we start closing waterways down."

Some Virginia environmentalists said the state is not doing enough to protect the public. Joseph H. Maroon, Virginia executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called on the state yesterday to consider closing parts of the Rappahannock where the fish with lesions were found.

"Fifty to 75 percent!" exclaimed Maroon. "If they have found 50 to 75 percent, then clearly some action needs to be taken. . . . We're very concerned about the potential for an outbreak in the state. There certainly isn't any indication that Virginia will escape the problems that have occurred in Maryland and North Carolina. In Maryland, they've adopted the 20 percent figure. We hope Virginia would follow suit."

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) closed the Kings Creek branch of the Manokin River two days ago after fish with lesions -- believed caused by Pfiesteria -- were found swimming there. Maryland physicians began examining 17 more Somerset County residents yesterday who believe they are suffering from Pfiesteria-caused illnesses.

Glendening has said he wants to err on the side of public safety. He also said he may call for new restrictions on chicken farmers and other producers of waste and nutrients. Such nutrients are suspected of triggering toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks when they wash into waterways under certain conditions.

Maryland officials defended their policy. The state's reaction is "entirely appropriate. . . . We are erring on the side of caution," said Martin P. Wasserman, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

He said studies show that some Maryland residents became sick after exposure to a watershed where fish lesions were the sole indicator of a problem.

"When they get health problems, they'll react the way we did," Wasserman said. "North Carolina for years didn't recognize the health problems, and now they're looking at our research."

Virginia Secretary of Conservation and Natural Resources Becky Norton Dunlop said Virginia's circumstances differ from Maryland's.

"Virginia is relying very heavily on our scientists and on our health officials to make recommendations that are based on science before we make policy decisions," she said. "We don't have a one-size-fits-all determination."

Maryland scientists searched in vain yesterday for signs of Pfiesteria in a third state river, the Nanticoke. Researchers pulled nets and seines through the Nanticoke after a few area residents said they had seen fish with lesions. After hours of searching, they "didn't find any lesioned fish," said Liz Kalinowski, spokeswoman for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. She said state workers will continue to watch for evidence of Pfiesteria in the Nanticoke and elsewhere throughout the weekend.

The Nanticoke is north of the two Eastern Shore tributaries -- Kings Creek and the Pocomoke -- that remain closed because of Pfiesteria outbreaks.

In Virginia, Suzanne Jenkins, acting state epidemiologist, said even if the Rappahannock fish lesions were caused by Pfiesteria, the fact that the fish survived indicates "that there isn't as much toxin in the water."

Asked if she had criteria on which to base a decision on closing a river, she said, "Well, if I knew that people were getting sick in an area and I knew it would not be enough to tell them not to go there, then I guess I would recommend closure of an area."

But she said she did not have a standard such as Maryland's 20 percent rule.

"I would rather be flexible and take each incident on a case-by-case basis than have something written down and it turns out it doesn't apply," she said.

Environmentalist Maroon said Virginia's reaction seems similar to North Carolina's initial reactions to Pfiesteria outbreaks.

"They took a 'go-slow, hope the issue dies down' approach," he said. "We hope Virginia will take more aggressive and appropriate action."

Staff writer Fern Shen contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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