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Groups cite mercury in locally sold fish

03/05/2004
Christopher Anderson and Cindy Tumiel
San Antonio Express-News

A selection of oceanic fish bought from two local grocery stores contained levels of mercury that exceed levels that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Department of Health consider safe, foes of a proposed new coal-fired power plant said Thursday.

"Dangerously high levels of mercury were found in five of the seven fish that we bought," said Karen Hadden, executive director of Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, an Austin-based environmental organization.

SEED and two other environmental groups, Public Citizen and Smart Growth San Antonio, did not directly blame City Public Service for the elevated mercury levels it found in the oceanic fish, which were caught in sea waters far from San Antonio's power plants.

But they did use the results to challenge CPS' plans to build another coal-fired power plant whose emissions would include mercury.

The groups refused to identify the stores where the fish were bought.

"Our issue is not with them. They don't even know," Hadden said. "They have no way of knowing if fish coming in have high levels of mercury, because they're not tested."

Considerable disagreement exists over how much mercury in fish is safe. The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates commercial seafood, has a higher threshold of safety. By FDA standards, only one of the seven fish contains unsafe mercury levels.

Chris Brown, a consultant for Public Citizen, said the city-owned utility annually emits more than 700 pounds of mercury from its existing coal-burning plants at Calaveras Lake and that CPS' application to build a new plant nearby shows that it could emit an additional 680 pounds per year.

"We're not saying this mercury directly has led to these grocery store fish having high levels, but they are certainly contributing to the overall picture," Brown said. "It doesn't make sense to add to that."

Joe Fulton, CPS' director of research and environmental management, said the new plant actually would release only 118 pounds per year if it comes online as proposed in 2008. He said the higher figure does not reflect the utility's latest plans.

He also said planned environmental controls to the utility's existing coal plants would lower mercury emissions from those facilities, and that the total amount of CPS emissions, including the new plant, would be about the same as they are today.

"The contention that CPS is contributing to a mercury problem is false," he said.

The environmental groups had the fish tested by Analysis Inc., a private laboratory in Austin. Five of the seven samples swordfish, blacktip shark, yellowfin tuna, and albacore and grouper exceeded EPA mercury guidelines.

Two of these fish exceeded state standards. And only the swordfish steak exceeded FDA standards.

In 2001 the FDA recommended pregnant women or women who may be come pregnant avoid eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish, which can contain high levels of methylmercury. This is a form of mercury that can damage the developing nervous system in a fetus.

But there is no universally accepted standard on an unsafe level of mercury, said Kirk Wiles, director of seafood safety for the Texas Department of Health.

"For the average consumer it (seafood in retail markets and restaurants) is probably very safe," Wiles said. "It's important to recognize that women of childbearing age should not consume the four species mentioned."

canderson@express-news.net

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