Decades after discharges from the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant polluted local waterways, the state has decided to post a do-not-eat-the-fish advisory on Bear Creek because of increasing public access to a lower stretch of the creek.
“Eating fish with elevated levels of mercury and PCBs is a risk Tennesseans can avoid,” Tisha Calabrese-Benton of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation said in a statement released by the state agency.
“Fish consumption advisories give fishermen and their families the information they need to make informed decisions about limiting their intake or avoid fish from specific stream segments or bodies of water,” said Calabrese-Benton, director of TDEC’s Division of Water Resources.
Bear Creek originates on the west side of Y-12, before flowing through a valley to join East Fork Poplar Creek, which has been posted as a hazard since 1982.
Even though authorities knew about the pollution in Bear Creek at the same time East Fork was posted decades ago, “it was considered unnecessary to include it in the advisory since there was no exposure route to the public.”
With some land around Bear Creek now being accessible to the public via development of a greenway system over the past decade, the state decided to post the warning signs.
Unlike East Fork, which is posted with warnings against water contact, Bear Creek will only receive the fish advisory, the state said.
Environmental scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have done extensive studies of Bear Creek, including the presence of the Tennessee Dace, which is listed as “in need of management” by the state.
According to a release from the state, the risk associated with mercury is from eating fish with elevated tissue concentrations of mercury or PCBs.
“Swimming and wading in these waters or catching and releasing fish are activities that do not expose the public to an increased risk,” the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation stated.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, mercury is a naturally occurring element and can be found throughout the environment. The primary way people are exposed to mercury is by eating fish containing methylmercury, the most toxic form that accumulates easily in organisms.
Many tons of mercury were discharged or otherwise lost to the environment at Y-12 during Cold War development of thermonuclear weapons in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Among other things, ORNL scientists are studying the ways in which elemental mercury or other forms of the metal are converted to methylmercury in the environment.
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