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Unsafe Supply

A recent report contains 10-year-old information about toxins in Memphis watersheds.

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Sections of all Memphis watersheds have posted advisories urging people not to eat fish caught in local lakes and rivers due to contaminants. Only a few sections have been classified as safe for all their designated uses, such as swimming and fishing, according to a recently released Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) report that outlines state water quality for 2003-2004. But a local TDEC official says the information in the new report is not entirely up-to-date.

According to the report, all Memphis watersheds are contaminated with dioxin and chlordane, causing the fish to be unsafe for eating. All of McKellar Lake is classified as contaminated. About 20 miles of the Loosahatchie River and the Wolf River have similar postings. Fish in the Mississippi River are unsafe from the Mississippi state line to just downstream of Meeman-Shelby State Park. Commercial fishing in this area is prohibited by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Only 1.8 miles of Nonconnah Creek has been designated as unsafe for fishing.

As bad as this sounds, the report may not be completely accurate, according to Terry Templeton, manager of the division of water pollution control at TDEC's Memphis Environmental Assistance Center.

"This is data from a fish-tissue study from about 10 years ago," he said, pointing out that only a portion of the report is updated with new information from year to year. "The truth is we really don't know how bad the fish-tissue samples would be today. Since the data is fairly old, I believe we've started the process to get some additional fish-tissue samples."

Templeton said one of the reasons the office has not gathered new data in 10 years is because it is severely understaffed. His office has eight people who are responsible for water sampling, several different permitting programs, site inspections, and investigating the 100 or so individual complaints that come in each year. He says the understaffing is a problem at all eight TDEC field offices across the state.

"Ten-year-old data may lull the public into a false sense of security," said James Baker, a local water activist with the Sierra Club's Water Sentinels. "I [would] applaud TDEC for conducting some new tests for the substances that fish consumption advisories are issued for."

If any of those substances -- primarily chlordane and dioxin in the Memphis area -- still linger in local watersheds, they're most likely left over from industrial runoff from 20 to 30 years ago, according to Templeton.

"Some of those facilities, at the time they were operating, were not doing anything illegal, but as time passed, we learned more and more and found out there were problems. We suspect the contaminants that are mentioned here were deposited into the sediment of the stream and the fish living in the streams came into contact with it by eating food off the bottom."

Baker suggested that the chlordane may also have washed from the soil into the water when it was used as a pesticide to kill termites in the ground around homes. It was banned in 1988, but he says "it's extremely persistent in the soil."

The report also shows that only portions of all Memphis watersheds fully support their designated use -- fishing, recreation, irrigation, livestock watering, domestic water supply, navigation, and industrial water supply. Only 25 percent of the Mississippi River supports all of its uses. This is blamed on agricultural runoff and contamination that has drifted downriver from other states.

The Loosahatchie has been affected mainly by siltation and habitat alteration and only 6 percent fully supports its uses. However, 46 percent was not assessed. Only 6 percent of Nonconnah Creek is fully supporting, due mostly to urban runoff. Thirty-four percent of the creek was not assessed. Only 10 percent of the Wolf River supports all of its uses, but 70 percent has not been assessed. Most of the Wolf's problems stem from agricultural activities and urban runoff.

The TDEC report is released every two years, and it contains information on 54 rivers and streams in the state. In the Memphis area, data is collected from the Mississippi River, the Loosahatchie River, Nonconnah Creek, McKellar Lake, and the Wolf River. According to Templeton, TDEC divides the 54 watersheds among five monitoring groups, with each group testing nine to 16 watersheds. Each year, one group is chosen for monitoring and the watersheds in that group are split up among the eight TDEC field offices in the state.

"This report is a snapshot of our assessment process," said Templeton. "The information is continually changing because we're gathering data and doing new assessments each year."

E-mail: bphillips@memphisflyer.com

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