Letter from Lavaca Bay

Letter from Lavaca Bay BY DIANA CLAITOR

avaca Bay, halfway between Corpus Christi and Galveston, has always produced a wealth of shrimp, blue crabs, oysters, and red and black drum. It’s also home to what author and environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn calls the worst environmental disaster on the Texas Gulf Coast—“the taking of the bay” by aluminum giant Alcoa. Starting in 1966, Alcoa’s Point Comfort plant discharged enormous quantities of mercury into the bay. Conservative estimates put the number at more than 67 pounds a day. In the early 1970s, state officials ordered Alcoa to stop discharging mercury-laden water and vapor; subsequently oyster harvesting was banned. In 1988, fishing and crabbing was banned. Shrimp was not thought to retain as much mercury; it was never banned. In 1994 Lavaca Bay became a federally designated Superfund site, and as a result, Alcoa began paying for the cleanup of mercury as well as other dangerous pollutants. So far, it’s spent approximately $40 million. Last December, after years of negotiation, federal and state agencies reached a settlement with Alcoa and Alcoa World Alumina LLC, which have agreed to spend at least another $11.4 million to restore the bay and to reimburse state and federal agencies for their costs. As part of that agreement, Alcoa will donate 729 acres for wildlife habitat and will also build fishing piers and boat ramps to compensate recreational users. Company representatives say the total price tag is likely to exceed $100 million. But many of those who live and work in the area say the settlement is far from adequate. They point out that it fails to mention losses to commercial fishermen—the fin fishermen, oystermen, shrimpers, and crabbers who bring Gulf Coast seafood to our tables. As people in the insular fishing communities along the coast have begun to mull that over, they have also begun talking about something that for years many have been reluctant to openly discuss—the fact that ban or no ban, many consume seafood from all parts of the bay and many local communities have experienced an explosion of health problems, including autism [see “Mercury” page 11], that they now suspect may be mercury-related. With the assistance of two South Texas law firms, an uneasy coalition of three historically divided fishing groups—Anglo, Hispanic, and Vietnamese—has now decided to take on the largest aluminum corporation in the world. ike many veteran shrimpers, Dennis Williams also goes by what he calls his “shrimping name”—Deputy Dawg. Like many shrimpers around Lavaca Bay, he regularly did contract work at the Alcoa plant in Point Comfort. Now 67, Williams has been suffering from multiple health problems, including heart disease, partial deafness, and tremors, for many years. His wife, Donna Sue, 61, speculates as to the source of those problems. “For these guys,” she says, “between eating the seafood and working in those plants, it’s a double whammy.” The Williams’ were among the crowd of fishermen, oystermen, shrimpers, crabbers, seafood dealers, divers, and former plant workers who filled the Calhoun County agricultural building one night in Port Lavaca this past May to hear about a lawsuit being planned against Alcoa. Among those who addressed the crowd was Dr. B.J. Presley, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M. For Presley, the subject of mercury and Lavaca Bay was old hat. In the late 1980s he began collecting samples and data on the mercury levels in the bay. In addition to contributing to efforts that led to its designation as a Superfund site, he also participated in a 1994 conference at which more than 100 scientists examined the complex effects of mercury contamination. In Port Lavaca he sounded exasperated to be repeating what he had said so many times before. Summarizing his objections to the Alcoa settlement, Presley argued that the company and the government agencies focus on cleaning up “hot spots,” as opposed to dealing with widespread mercury contamination. He also doesn’t think sampling the fish will reveal the levels of contamination in humans. “Study the people, not the fish!” he growled. “The hair doesn’t lie. So like I said 20 years ago, why aren’t we doing blood or hair sampling to get a direct measure? Instead of trying to establish how much fish they’re eating, where the fish came from, how big they are, what phase of the moon they were caught in….” Laurel I. Cahill, a spokeswoman for Alcoa, says that the company has indeed assessed the impact of mercury contamination on both the commercial interests and health of area residents. In a lengthy e-mail response to questions from the Observer, Cahill wrote that “estimated mercury intake” for commercial fishermen and their families had been compared to EPA guidelines. “It was concluded that for women of childbearing age,” she stated, “there is a low potential risk from exposure to mercury in fish from Lavaca Bay and this risk is below a level of concern.” She referred to a “door-to-door interview process conducted by TDH in 1996 [that] concluded that the Vietnamese shrimpers—a potential local subsistence population were not at risk because their activities generally occur outside of Lavaca Bay.” Dr. John Villanacci was in charge of public health assessment at TDH at the time and has a different take on the survey. Villanacci says that when members of his staff tried to do interviews in the Vietnamese community, which had the highest consumption of fish, they ran up against a wall of silence. “Nobody would admit to eating anything from the banned area,” he says, adding that he suspects people were afraid to admit consuming fish from the bay because they would also be admitting to breaking the law. From the health department’s standpoint, he says, that left nothing to investigate. No exposed population, no tests. But in tiny fishing communities nothing is ever quite so simple. The state does attempt to warn residents of health hazards by posting large signs, written in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, at various points around the bay. The signs read “Health Warning! DO NOT eat crabs or fish caught in the closure area of the bay,” and display a map and further information about the danger of mercury contamination and a $500 fine for those caught with seafood. Many in the fishing communities, however, see those signs as just more unwarranted intrusion from the Austin bureaucrats who have enacted regulations and restrictions that have caused problems for commercial fishing. They say that people may have known that mercury was there, but still didn’t think there was anything wrong with eating seafood from the bay. Moreover, it was impossible to take the ban seriously, says Dennis Williams. “So they say the fish are safe on one side and not on the other?” he asks. “Like fish don’t move around.” Many locals avoided the topic altogether. “People didn’t want to do anything to hurt the fishing,” says Donna Sue Williams, who formerly managed fish houses in the town of Seadrift. “So they didn’t talk about it. It was always sort of hush-hush.” If that seems shortsighted, it’s also indicative of an atmosphere of independence, secrecy, and a general distrust of outsiders in the fishing communities. But times are definitely changing. Nearly 1,000 area residents have signed up to participate in a lawsuit against Alcoa, according to Jim Cole, a partner in the Victoria law firm of Cole, Cole & Easley, P.C. The overall goals are health care and long-term monitoring for people suffering from conditions caused by mercury contamination as well as compensation for damage to the fisheries. Alcoa maintains that commercial interests have been “impacted by a myriad of other forces unrelated to the mercury contamination including … extreme changes in the Bay’s biological health related to freezes, floods, and natural occurrences,” according to Cahill. Cole concedes that proving commercial damages will be difficult, but says there is considerable anecdotal evidence from fishhouse people and fishermen who say that many customers have quit buying fish from this area and have turned to farm-raised or fish imported from overseas. Having a reputation as a toxic area can be part of the “pervasive damages” caused by Alcoa’s actions, says Grover Hankins, an experienced litigator who has worked on multi-plaintiff environmental cases throughout the United States. Hankins’ League City firm is the other part of the legal team planning to represent area residents in the case against Alcoa. He frankly admits that the case will be challenging. And as he spoke to the crowd in Port Lavaca, it became obvious that the challenges go beyond the legal complexities. At one point Hankins, who is African American, mentioned having worked as general counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Three men interrupted him with a muffled joke and laughter. A moment later, a white fisherman spoke out to say that “Gringos” were now the minority. The comments brought to mind the long simmering racial tensions in an area where the influx of Vietnamese in the 1970s and 1980s changed the fishing industry. Conflicts and intimidation led to the killing of one white fishermen by two Vietnamese, the incident eventually fictionalized and portrayed in the 1985 film, Alamo Bay. But despite a history of conflict, the fishermen of Lavaca Bay may finally be discovering that they have more in common than they ever thought. The biggest round of applause at the Port Lavaca meeting last May came toward the end of the night. That’s when a fisherman named Eddy Arnold spoke out. Arnold, whose shrimping nickname is Rhino, told his fellow fishermen that it was “time for somebody to stand up and tell the plants we’re tired of this crap.” For Arnold and so many others, it was time to try to take back the bay.

LINKS IN THE MERCURY FOODCHAIN – a sidebar Mercury enters our food supply from contaminated water. Whether companies dump mercury into air or water, it ends up in the water—fresh and salt—where bacteria convert it to methylmercury that accumulates in algae. That algae is eaten by small fish, which in turn are eaten by larger fish. The concentration of methylmercury in fish that are higher in the aquatic food chain, such as red and black drum and spotted sea trout, can be as high as a million times the concentration of the surrounding water. “The bottom line in all this is that the latest sampling from this year shows some fish and shell fish from the Lavaca Bay area are high enough that if you eat a modest amount of them per week you’ll be getting an unsafe dose of mercury,” says Texas A&M professor emeritus Dr. B. J. Presley. Unfortunately you are not safe if you just avoid Lavaca Bay seafood. Our state is allowing coal-burning utilities to produce so much mercury that Texas now leads the nation in methylmercury levels. An estimated one-third of the state’s freshwater fish is contaminated by this heavy metal. Media attention has focused on mercury’s toxic effects on infants. But mercury also injures the neurological systems and brains of adults, although the symptoms may not appear for decades. According to National Environmental Defense Fund study (August, 2004) methylmercury poisoning in an adult can cause a range of problems including memory loss, behavioral changes, tremors, headaches, and even hair loss. Now, however, newer studies reveal that people with elevated levels of mercury are more likely to have cardiovascular disease. Most devastating of all, however are mercury’s effects on fetuses and infants. In low doses, the element may affect a child’s development—delaying walking and talking, shortening attention spans, lowering intelligence levels and causing learning disabilities. In higher amounts, mercury is being linked to autism, according to a growing number of reports. A common assumption is that the mothers of these children must have been exposed to extraordinarily high amounts of mercury, but even the Environmental Protection Agency, which is often conservative in its predictions, reports that this is not necessarily the case. “Minimally affected mothers have given birth to severely affected infants,” warns a 1998 EPA report. The latest EPA advisory uses data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its estimation that more than 300,000 infants who “may have increased risk of learning disabilities associated with in utero exposure to methylmercury” are born each year. —D.C.

Diana Claitor lives in South Austin. She is a freelance writer and historical researcher specializing in early Texas and the Johnson presidency.

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