Virginia health officials say they have found increased traces of the pesticide Kepone in James River fish this summer with average concentrations of the toxic chemical running well above federal safety limits in four species popular with local fishermen.
The finding reverses a four-year downward trend that environmental officials have traced since massive amounts of the the pesticide were discovered to have been secretly dumped into the river during the last decade.
"We're very concerned that the levels are going higher again," said Robert Stroube, Virginia's deputy health commissioner. "We don't know whether it's going to continue or just a fluke but it flies in the face of everything that has happened before."
Officials say they are uncertain of the reasons for the increase but speculate that drought conditions from last spring reduced the river's fresh water flow and may have encouraged the four salt-water species to stay longer in the Kepone-contaminated waters.
Stroube and officials from four other state agencies reviewed the new data at an unannounced meeting a week ago that some say may have violated the state's Freedom of Information Act. At that meeting, the officials decided to take no action to close to commercial or recreational fishing the eight-mile stretch of water in the lower James near Newport News where the highest Kepone levels were detected.
Instead, the group decided to continue monitoring the area and prepared a statement detailing the data. Before it was released, the statement was revised to eliminate a strongly worded warning from health officials that Kepone is a suspected carcinogen because studies have shown it can produce cancer in laboratory animals.
The statement that was finally issued made no mention of cancer but merely noted a health department recommendation that consumption of fish from the lower James "be minimized."
"They didn't use our words," said Stroube, who added that because Kepone's effect on human health remains under study, he would suggest that pregnant women and small children avoid lower James fish altogether.
The statement's language was apparently toned down by Roy Puckett, the state's Kepone coordinator, who was on vacation today and could not be reached, according to his secretary.
Timothy Hayes, director of the Virginia Environmental Defense Fund, said he believed state officials violated the state's information law by the unannounced meeting and were remiss in not publicizing the health hazard.
"To say they've suppressed the information might be too strong but they've certainly not gone out of their way to let people know," said Hayes. "They ought to close that section until the level goes down."
The James and its wildlife have been contaminated with Kepone since Allied Chemical Corp., which operates a chemical plant in Hopewell, illegally dumped thousands of pounds of the pesticide in the river during the early 1970s. Last year, state officials bowed to pleas from the state's financially ailing seafood industry and lifted a five-year ban on most commercial fishing despite lingering questions on the safety of eating the fish.
Officials say they began to find fish with increased Kepone levels in June, especially in a zone just upstream of the James River Bridge at Newport News. In that zone -- "a key commercial fishing area," according to State Water Control Board official Raymond Bowles -- nearly 90 percent of croaker and spot and about 50 percent of bluefish and trout caught and tested from that area showed levels above the federal safety standard of 0.3 parts per million.
For July, all four of the species averaged above the federal limit with croaker averaging 0.53 ppm, spot 0.51, bluefish 0.38 and trout 0.35.
Thomas Hooker, director of the Food and Drug Administration's Baltimore office, said today his inspectors were testing fish samples from northeastern markets but would have no laboratory results until next week. Hooker said that because the inspectors check fish at the marketplace rather than at the docks where they are caught, he could not be certain whether their samples had in fact come from the lower James area in question. Virginia agriculture officials, who monitor local markets, say they have seen no "significant increase" in Kepone levels in fish sold in Virginia.
State officials and fishing interests long have challenged the federal safety level for Kepone as too stringent. But last January Environmental Protection Agency officials rejected the state's request to ease the safety level, saying there was not enough hard data to support a revision.
Hayes said of the FDA's response to the new Kepone data: "They're treating this like a dead mouse on the floor -- ignoring it as much as possible." He said he surprised and dismayed that FDA could not determine for certain the origin of its samples and questioned how it would be possible for consumers to do so.