Tainted fish are no catch

Many unaware of lake's dangers

By Megan McKee
Globe Correspondent / April 12, 2009
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As the Army readies plans to clean up polluted sediment on the bottom of Lake Cochituate, Marco Kaltofen of Natick worries about the anglers who bring catches tainted with dangerous PCBs home to their families.

"We have all these possible ways of dealing with the sediment," said Kaltofen, who runs a Natick-based environmental investigation firm and has chaired a board overseeing the cleanup of the lake since 1996. "The only method for dealing with the sediment is one that does not result in children eating contaminated fish."

The lake's bottom is contaminated with PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, that were released during the mid-1980s from the Army's Natick Soldiers Systems Center, long known as the Natick Labs. The Army suspects the source was a transformer explosion at its research facility on South Pond, the southernmost portion of the lake. Fish take in the PCBs and people - especially children and pregnant women - who eat the fish can face serious health problems.

On a recent blustery Sunday afternoon, Cochituate's shore was dotted with fishermen hoping to reel in a catch. Some would release the fish back into the lake. Others would take them home to eat, including one man who identified himself only as Peter, and said he is an immigrant from Bulgaria who lives in Cambridge. Between trips from his pole at the water's edge to the warmth of his car, he said in sparse English that yes, he does eat the fish. "Trout!" he added.

Kaltofen said that his interpretation of an Army survey, which attempted to determine how much Lake Cochituate fish was being eaten, showed that 97 percent of the catch being taken home went to minority or immigrant households like Peter's.

Because of the language gap and the fact that many anglers aren't from the immediate area, education efforts alone won't stop the practice, he said, which adds to the importance of cleaning up the tainted sediment.

He worries that tougher economic times mean more people will be relying on fishing in local waters to sustain their families, which could have disastrous consequences for children, who are at risk for mental and muscular developmental delays from exposure to PCBs.

After 15 years of research and planning, the Army has released a final list of proposals for dealing with the tainted sediments, ranging from doing nothing to a complex plan for dredging and disposal that would cost $21.7 million.

The Army anticipates hosting a public hearing this spring on the proposals before it formulates a plan, which must be approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. An Army spokesman said the cleanup could start this fall, but next spring is more likely.

The delay in dealing with the spill is due to the lengthy process that the EPA requires of highly contaminated Superfund sites, like the Natick Center property, said James Connolly, the Army's program manager for the cleanup. Contaminated groundwater was the top cleanup priority due to the property's proximity to the town's drinking wells, said Connolly. Meanwhile, the PCBs issue had to be thoroughly studied before the Army could formulate its options.

"The EPA has you go through a fairly rigorous process," said Connolly, with the effort coordinated among several local, state, and federal entities.

Connolly said that while the Army determined the PCBs were not a risk to swimmers or waders, eating the fish does pose a small, though very real, risk.

"The bottom line is that . . . the risk is small but it exceeded the EPA benchmark for people consuming PCBs. As a result, we needed to come up with something," said Connolly.

State officials are also concerned about the fish in the lake. There is a state-issued advisory warning children and pregnant women not to eat fish from Lake Cochituate. Laminated paper signs posted in the fishing area off Route 30, where Peter was stationed, offer a warning, in English only, of the PCB dangers. The signs also feature a drawing of a fish in a frying pan with the "no" circle-and-slash symbol over it.

John Dwinell, who as the regional director for the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation has oversight of Cochituate State Park, said that the fish-in-the-frying-pan picture is adequate for warning non-English speakers.

"We're actually a melting pot of cultures . . . the question is what languages do you put up?" he said. "We've found that international symbols are the best way to go."

But signs alone may not be enough to deter anglers from eating their catch, as evidenced by education efforts on the Sudbury River. Officials there have also been attempting to control fishing on a waterway where the catch is harmful.

On the Sudbury, mercury from the former Nyanza textile dye factory in Ashland contaminates the water and wildlife, threatening the immigrants who often fish to provide protein for their families, said Donna Jacobs, director of the MetroWest Growth Management Committee. Last year, the committee was awarded a $148,000 grant to educate those fishing on the river about the contaminated fish.

The committee is putting the final touches on its first wave of outreach efforts, and the issues they've encountered along the way are instructive for Lake Cochituate's fate.

Although multilingual signs on the river advise anglers to not eat the fish, they are often ignored.

Jacobs said she was surprised to learn the extent of distrust some immigrants have for the government, sentiment that's often carried from countries with rampant political corruption. Government-issued warnings, therefore, do not always carry much weight with them.

"That was an unexpected one for me but it really does seem to be in many instances that it is the crux of the matter," said Jacobs. The committee has had to forge a network with leaders in the area's ethnic communities, from Vietnamese to Russian to Portuguese. "We absolutely must be successful in this," she added.

Connolly said that the Army will take additional outreach steps only if the requirement is included in the final cleanup plan.

No matter what happens, Kaltofen stresses that the source of the PCBs, not just the taking of the fish, must be dealt with. Children can no longer be exposed to the hazard.

"We have to clean up the PCBs from the lake," he said.