Mercury Concerns Hit West

By Ben Raines

In response to reports of mercury contamination at oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, California's legislature is considering a bill that would require mercury testing around that state's offshore rigs in the Pacific Ocean.

The California bill, which is being pushed by the California commercial fishing association, also calls for an investigation into possible harm to humans who consume fish or shellfish caught near oil rigs.

Sponsors say they believe the bill has an excellent chance of passage once it leaves the Legislature's Fisheries and Aquaculture Committee.

There are no reports of similar bills proposed by state legislatures on the Gulf Coast, where mercury contamination of sediment beneath some rigs is well documented.

About the time the California bill was being crafted, the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission failed to endorse recommendations for new mercury testing in the Gulf. Those recommendations were made by a panel of scientists from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several state wildlife agencies.

The bill's author, assembly member Virginia Strom-Martin, a Democrat from a district on California' northern coast, became aware of the potential problem in her state while reading about mercury contamination in the Gulf of Mexico, according to her spokesman.

Recent stories in the Mobile Register revealed that oil and gas operations dump more than 1 billion pounds of mercury-contaminated drilling fluids into the Gulf each year. The drilling fluids cool and lubricate drill bits as crews bore new wells.

Studies by the U.S. Minerals Management Service, which regulates the nation's offshore oil fields, indicate that mercury levels in the sand around some Gulf rigs are three times higher than levels found at EPA Superfund sites that are closed to all fishing. Mercury levels in some creatures living around those rigs are at least 25 times higher than levels found elsewhere in the Gulf.

"We see this as a right-to-know issue," said Mary Morgan, who handles fishery issues for Strom-Martin. "We don't know if the mercury is ending up in our fish, and we need to know. This is a primary food source.

"If this mercury is a problem, we've got to do something. And it doesn't really matter if the rigs are off of California or in the Gulf. We still need to know if the mercury is getting into the fish. Fish are caught in one place, like the Gulf, and then shipped all over the country. This affects everyone."

California's commercial fishermen, who actively fought oil drilling on the Pacific Coast, are also pushing for the testing around the rigs.

In an open letter endorsing the bill, Zeke Grader, head of the commercial Pacific Coast Fishermen's Associations, described the pollution in the Gulf and wrote, "the Minerals Management Service knew about this but refused to take action except to ban the dumping of the drill muds in state waters in the Gulf and kept promoting sport fishing around the rigs and the use of abandoned rigs as artificial sport fishing reefs."

Mercury contamination around the 5,500 Gulf oil rigs may be particularly dangerous because Gulf fish and fishermen both swarm to the rigs, which appear to be the most mercury-contaminated spots in the Gulf.

When Louisiana's recreational fishermen head offshore, 70 percent of them fish at the rigs, according to a study posted on the MMS Web site. Federal records indicate that the bulk of commercial fishing activity in the Gulf takes place off Louisiana, where the lion's share of the Gulf's oil rigs are located.

The MMS Web site trumpets each rig as a fish-rich "oasis" in the vast desert of the Gulf. Federal studies state that a rig supports resident colonies of up to 30,000 fish, with important commercial and recreational species, red snapper and amberjack listed as two of the most abundant species.

"I think a federal panel needs to investigate why you have a federal agency promoting fishing around the rigs if it were reasonable to expect the contamination was spreading to the fish," said Grader, the commercial fishing lobbyist.

MMS officials insist that GOOMEX, a federal study of the environmental impact of the rigs, proved the mercury at the rigs wasn't ending up in fish. But the independent scientists who actually worked on the MMS study disagree.

Several told the Register that the data suggested the mercury dumped around the rigs might indeed be ending up in Gulf fish. MMS data show that the rigs with the highest mercury levels in the sediments also supported the most mercury contaminated fish.

Scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service said they are becoming increasingly concerned about the mercury around the rigs and how it may have spread into the Gulf's food chain.

Recently, the fisheries service announced a substantial testing effort that will compare mercury levels in fish found near oil rigs with mercury levels in fish caught off the Florida coast, where there are no oil or gas rigs.

State officials say there are less than three dozen rigs off the California shore. Any potential contamination there would be much more limited than contamination in the Gulf, where 5,500 rigs have drilled more than 50,000 natural gas and oil wells.

A massive oil spill in the early days of drilling off California went a long way toward locking the oil industry out of widespread drilling along the California coastline. Environmental groups and the fishing industry teamed up to successfully battle the industry.

"I tend to think California is going to be cleaner than the Gulf because of the issues we raised in the 1980s, but we need to find out," Grader said. "I mean, what the heck is the Minerals Management Service doing promoting fishing around these rigs if they are aware and have knowledge that there is potential or actual contamination of fish around these rigs. It seems the agency has knowledge and is part and parcel of poisoning the public."

The California bill "finds and declares" that high concentrations of mercury resulting from drilling operations have been found around Gulf rigs, that mercury levels in fish and shellfish around the rigs exceed safe levels for human consumption and that people eating fish from around the rigs have high levels of methylmercury in their bodies.

In the last year, the Register tested a number of important commercial and recreational fish, such as redfish, grouper, amberjack and cobia, for mercury and found that most were so contaminated with the heavy metal that FDA regulations would prohibit them from being sold to the public.

The paper also organized hair tests of 70 coastal residents who said they ate fish at least once a week. A surprising number were found to have five to 10 times the EPA's safe level for mercury in the human body. The numbers were especially high in sportfishermen who fish the rigs.

"In the Gulf, they need to begin testing around the rigs right away," Grader said. "Then they can begin to decide if it is appropriate to have anyone fishing around these things. I would venture to say you may have a massive Superfund site in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico."