Mercury Contamination Threatens Health of Lake Whatcom

Since January 2014, Whatcom Watch has been rerunning articles from issues printed 20 years ago. The below article appeared in the July 2001 issue of Whatcom Watch.

Editor’s Note: Part I can be read at:  html#story1. The following article has been cut. The entire article can be read at:

by Jim Johnston

Part II

The full extent of mercury contamination of Lake Whatcom’s fish was released to the public on April 12, 2001, in a Washington State Department of Ecology document co-authored by that agency, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state Department of Health.

Dr. David Serdar (state Department of Ecology) was the lead author. He was also the author of the September 1999 state Department of Ecology report that first revealed the high mercury concentrations in smallmouth bass and other contaminants (PCBs, dieldrin, DDE, etc.) in the flesh of other fish species that exceeded federal Environmental Protection Agency’s National Toxics Rule criteria. The results of the September 1999 and April 2001 Department of Ecology studies point to serious levels of contamination in Lake Whatcom’s fish.

Increased Recognition of Mercury’s Toxicity
Mercury is so toxic to life forms that this year the federal Environmental Protection Agency drastically lowered the concentration of mercury in fish tissues they consider harmful to human health. The Environmental Protection Agency’s new criteria for mercury in fish flesh dropped from 0.825 mg/kg (ppm) to 0.3 mg/kg.

That new lower level has yet to be adopted into the EPA National Toxics Rule Criteria, but that action is expected soon (Dave Serdar, toxicologist, Department of Ecology, personal communication). Until 0.3 mg/kg is formally adopted, Washington state Department of Ecology is required by federal law to use the old criteria of 0.825 mg/kg.

That older, less safe level, is used in the Department of Ecology’s 2001 report on mercury in Lake Whatcom fish tissue. While constraints that prevent application of the latest scientific studies regarding mercury may limit what the Department of Ecology can say in their report, it should not restrain actions local public and political bodies can take to protect human health.

Washington state Department of Health issues “don’t eat certain fish” advisories based upon different criteria than the federal Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Ecology.

The Department of Health bases their criteria upon a consumption rate that takes into consideration the weight of mercury in the fish tissue, the weight of the person eating it, the person’s sex, whether they are pregnant or breast feeding, and then calculates a Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI). The TDI is then put into a graph that compares all of these factors and the public is expected to adjust their intake of contaminated fish accordingly.

The Washington state Department of Health (David McBride, toxicologist, personal communications) has expressed concerns on how complicated formulas and graphs can be communicated to the public in an understandable format.

Mercury Far More Toxic Than Previously Thought
The latest scientific studies from around the world indicate mercury is far more toxic to life than previously thought. How many Lake Whatcom mercury-laden fish a person eats must be added to their consumption of mercury-laden canned tuna to figure safe consumption levels.

We won’t know that until we know the source and conduct future tests … tests that could take years to complete. If the mercury concentrations in the flesh of the fish are increasing, then the line should definitely move toward the more conservative “don’t eat” side.

The Lake Whatcom mercury-in-fish 2001 study results have caused Whatcom County Health and Washington state health departments to issue a fish consumption/human health advisory saying: “Women of child-bearing age and children under six should not eat the bass or the yellow perch from Lake Whatcom.”

No One Should Eat Lake Whatcom Fish
There are no current plans by either of those agencies to issue health warnings related to other species of fish, such as brown bullhead, also known as catfish, which when greater than nine inches in length, also contain high mercury concentrations in the edible flesh.

No health advisory will be issued for crayfish either, even though the largest individuals were also found to contain high mercury levels in edible tissues.

The line in the sand is too finely drawn. The health warning should have said to the public: “No one should eat fish from Lake Whatcom.”

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will have a new report out (summer 2001) that also analyzes the mercury in the sample of fish collected in the spring of 2000. This report focuses primarily upon the impacts of mercury on the fish populations, but also discusses related human health issues.

The findings, evaluated against the new EPA proposed National Toxics Rule Criteria of 0.3 mg/kg and the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) human consumption criteria, show that the flesh of the most sought-after fish (smallmouth bass, yellow perch, and brown bullhead and even some crayfish), in the sizes most likely to be kept by anglers, are unsafe for human consumption, especially by pregnant women, nursing mothers and infants.

Fish Are Indicators of Lake’s Health
Lake Whatcom’s fish, particularly the largest smallmouth bass, are good indicators of just how widespread mercury is throughout Lake Whatcom’s three distinct basins. Bass in basin three contain the highest concentrations of mercury found in the fish of Lake Whatcom.

Dave Serdar’s report (Whatcom Watch, October/November 1999, page 1) showed that Austin Creek had the highest mercury levels of any sampled tributary flowing into Lake Whatcom during the fall sampling.

Basin three, the largest and deepest basin in the lake, is most likely being polluted by one or more of the following:

1. Tributaries carrying mercury from suspected or unknown sources into the lake,

2. Airborne local industrial smokestack gas releases or gases from hog fuel burners,

3. Contents in old landfills in the watershed (see “Y Road Dump Leaves Questionable Legacy” Whatcom Watch, June 2001, page 15),

4. Urban stream runoff.

Origins of Mercury Most Likely Identified
The Environmental Protection Agency in their 1992 report identified these types of sources as the most likely origins of mercury contaminating U.S. waterways. These types of sources are most frequently related to coal-fired electrical generation plants, publicly owned treatment works, paper mills using chlorine, and municipal incinerators.

The concentrations of mercury found this past year in Lake Whatcom’s larger, angler-preferred smallmouth bass, exceeded concentrations found in fish from all of the most polluted waterways in the United States (based on EPA, 1992, Volume I, page 68). That is especially true of the smallmouth bass sampled at the mouth of Austin Creek (Sudden Valley).

 Lake Whatcom’s smallmouth bass samples had a mean total mercury concentration of 0.49 mg/kg. The average mercury concentration in smallmouth bass sampled during the 1992 nationwide survey of 383 sites (314 of which were heavily polluted industrial, agricultural and urban sites) was 0.34 mg/kg.

None of the categories of polluters (superfund sites, paper mills using chlorine, refineries, wood preservers, agriculture, industrial/urban sites, etc.) had mean concentrations of mercury in bass that were higher than Lake Whatcom’s.

We Do Not Have a Healthy, Clean Lake
The Environmental Protection Agency will place Lake Whatcom on its 303(d) list as an impaired water body due to mercury, PCBs, dieldrin, DDE, and other contaminates sometime in the near future. Lake Whatcom is already on the 303(d) list due to oxygen depletion problems.

 Our Whatcom County Health Department has told the public and local political leaders that the mercury concentrations in the fish of Lake Whatcom fall between the state and national averages … that is far from correct. County health also said all fish have mercury, as if that in some way minimizes the importance of mercury in Lake Whatcom’s fish.

Until contamination of our drinking water source is taken seriously, there will be little funds or effort directed at finding the source(s) of the mercury and stopping its entry into Lake Whatcom.

Establishing the Source of Drinking Water Contamination
Determining the Bellingham area source of Lake Whatcom’s mercury won’t be the problem once the search is initiated. The detective work needed to find out how mercury was/is transported to Lake Whatcom has received little agency support to date.

The local office of the Department of Ecology tells people the mercury is naturally occurring in Whatcom County and that is the source of Lake Whatcom’s contamination. That statement is not based upon geological reports or geologist consultations.

It is based upon one sample of fish taken from the lower main stem Nooksack River (not a section that flows into Lake Whatcom). That mercury could have come from one of any number of sources already mentioned.

Cleanup must start with looking at all possible sources. There should be no untouchable or unmentionable sacred cows in this search.

It would be much better to have local efforts directed at cleanup and protection rather than have some frustrated citizen, worried about their bathing and drinking water contamination, calling the federal government and asking them to intervene.

The Future
I have always felt that as the fish and wildlife around Lake Whatcom go, so shall go the success or failure of Bellingham to mature into a vibrant city. Those fish and wildlife cannot be preserved without curbing and directing growth, logging and pollution.

Preserving Lake Whatcom and reversing the damages already inflicted on it will require a citizenry with willingness to sacrifice, to pull together for a common good and to have a vision of the future. Interestingly enough, those are the same traits that residents of every city need to possess and employ if their city is to become diversified, intensely alive, inspiring, and environmentally and culturally wonderful to live in.

All successful cities met their particular challenge; Seattle did with polluted Lake Washington by forming METRO, Portland did with purchase and isolation of their Bull Run drinking water reservoir, Vancouver, B.C. did with the establishment of Stanley Park and B.C. Place on their industrially polluted waterfront. It’s the same story all across our county. The right mind-set could develop here.   


Jim Johnston retired from his position as resident fish biologist for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2001. During his 30-year career with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and its predecessor, the state Game Department, he held several field and research biologist positions.