- Associated Press - Saturday, February 1, 2014

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - State and local agencies in Oregon are at odds over whether toxic mercury is present in the McKenzie River, which has a reputation as one of the state’s purest rivers.

The toxic substance was found in the river’s fish, but some officials say the state’s fish sampling process was flawed and its new standard for how much can be present in the species is too stringent, The Register-Guard newspaper reported Saturday (http://bit.ly/1jXD6ES ).

The debate follows a proposal by the state Department of Environmental Quality to add the McKenzie and other rivers to a list of mercury-contaminated waters. It could mean the river may be tapped for future studies, cleanups, even advisories limiting the amount of fish people should eat.

The state would have to determine where the mercury is coming from and develop a cleanup plan. The list ultimately will be submitted to and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The McKenzie is reputed for pristine waters that flow down from heavily forested mountains and snow packs.

The Eugene Water & Electric Board, which draws its drinking water from the McKenzie, says the toxic substance is not present in the river. The utility says it regularly samples raw river water and has not detected mercury in any samples.

The state found acceptable levels of mercury in the river’s fish in 2008 and 2009. The DEQ took tissue samples of northern pikeminnow and large-scale sucker that were found swimming near the mouth of the McKenzie in the Springfield area.

But the DEQ later approved tougher mercury standards, which made the amount found in those fish seven times higher than the new acceptable level.

The new standard was modeled on a federal threshold and adopted to protect residents who eat a lot of fish, DEQ officials said. While drinking or swimming in water that contains mercury doesn’t pose a health risk, eating too much fish with elevated mercury levels can be dangerous.

The Eugene Water & Electric Board says the types of fish tested were not the best choice because they are migratory fish that swim in both the McKenzie and Willamette rivers, where mercury is present.

“Tying it back to the McKenzie is kind of a stretch in our minds,” said Karl Morgenstern, EWEB’s drinking water source protection coordinator. “If there isn’t a mercury source to start with, you’re kind of chasing a needle in the haystack to find mercury that doesn’t exist.”

Instead of the pikeminnow, the state should have sampled tissue from rainbow trout farther upstream because they are resident fish that stay in the McKenzie, Morgenstern said.

The state chose the pikeminnow because they are a predator and resident fish, according to the DEQ. The state didn’t sample rainbow trout because it’s difficult to tell which rainbows have been living in the McKenzie their whole lives.

Another problem, critics say, might be the state’s overly tight mercury standards.

“I’ll be surprised if there was a water body in Oregon that passes these standards,” said Jeff Ziller, a district fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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