On Special Assignment

Nov 11, 2013 11:54 PM by Jacqueline Quynh - KPAX News

Research continues on Western MT mercury pollution

MISSOULA - We've heard about dangerous mercury levels in fish caught in the ocean, but consumption limits are also in effect in our area - even though we're far from the coast.

The toxin in high levels could potentially cause nerve damage in humans, and researchers are busy taking look at a well-known icon to find out why mercury is still a big problem locally.

Iris and Stanley are a couple of world travelers who have made Missoula their part-time home. The osprey, along with their offspring, now have a worldwide following thanks to a camera that watches their every move near East Broadway in Missoula.

The osprey are at the top of the food chain in Western Montana, but there's a dangerous predator lurking in the water.

"These chicks right here, in Missoula they have levels of mercury that are through the roof," UM professor Erick Green explained.

"The biggest source for mercury is Flint Creek - by a wide margin," UM Research Assistant Professor Heiko Langner added.

Although mercury deposits can build up from the atmosphere, old mines may be the reason for higher concentration in the Clark Fork River basin around Missoula.

"We have more sources here because of historic mining, and because people in the old days used it to separate gold or silver from the rock," Kris Brick with the Clark Fork Coalition told us.

Mercury accumulates in fish that are in turn eaten by birds like osprey. The levels have caused Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials to issue a fish eating advisory in the Missoula Valley.

"There's several mines up there that there's about 400 cubic yards of waste rock and tailings," Devin Clary with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality told us.

Clary is working on the Black Pine Mine clean up project near Flint Creek, and also investigates other sources of mercury contamination.

"We've identified a mercury issue - we have some elevated mercury concentrations," Clary explained.

She says some of the water near the Black Pine project is about 100 times more than the acceptable standard.

"There's been concerns in Granite County - in different places specifically with mercury," Hall rancher Jim Dinsmore said.

He irrigates his ranch with water from the Willow Creek - a tributary of Flint Creek - and wants to know how the water affects people. That answer is slowly becoming apparent thanks to studies on wildlife, including the osprey.

"My colleague, Erick Green...is looking at egg mortality in nests along the Clark Fork [River], and he's seen some more contaminated sections of the river have had much less Osprey," Langner said.

Even though state funds are limited, some clean up projects are moving ahead - but there are hundreds that need to be done. All of the work would cost millions of dollars and take years to complete.

"Timing wise for the Black Pine Project - we are hoping to start construction next year with it - [there will be a projected]...five years worth of construction until we remove all that waste," Clary said.

The clean up work could reduce mercury pollution, and if nothing is done, some say it could continue to hurt wildlife like the osprey - and ultimately people.

"It is because of mercury that...[you] can't eat as much fish as you want in the Clark Fork River," Langner said.

DEQ officials say that at one time there were as many as 3,000 hard rock mines - and over 6,000 coal mines - in the state. Cleaning up the sites would take years and cost millions of dollars.

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