- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2003

RICHMOND (AP) — Nearly 18 months after announcing the presence of toxic chemicals called PCBs in the James River, state environmental investigators still are trying to find the source of the pollution.

Workers with the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) have taken samples of fish and river mud for testing. They have checked records of industries along the river and have interviewed people familiar with the James.

“Nothing specific has turned up yet,” said Bill Hayden, a spokesman for the DEQ.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyl particles, are considered a probable cause of cancer.

It can take months to catch the right size and type of fish for testing. It also can take months to get the results of fish and sediment tests, largely because other tests are in the pipeline ahead of them, Mr. Hayden said.

The Virginia Institute of Marine Science does most of the testing, but the DEQ does some of the sediment tests, Mr. Hayden said. Results of most of the tests of 60 fish samples and 55 sediment samples should come in early next year, he said.

Those tests, should they find high levels of PCBs, might point investigators toward a particular section of the river — and perhaps to a cause.

“This is a high priority, but we are in a phase that is very time-consuming,” Mr. Hayden said. “It certainly could take months, if not years, before anything comes up, if it ever does.”

DEQ investigators are particularly interested in finding out if there is a continuing source of the pollution, such as an old, leaking dump. Some of the contamination could be decades old.

The investigation seems to be taking quite a while, said Jim McKinnon, a Richmond environmental lawyer.

“I’m sure it’s something they are very interested in,” he said. “But it doesn’t seem like they are putting the resources into it.”

Mr. Hayden said the agency is conducting similar PCB investigations on other Virginia waters. They include the Roanoke River in Southside and the New River in southwest Virginia, as well as conducting the routine monitoring of fish and sediments across Virginia.

“We have a huge amount of work to do statewide,” he said. “We are not able to work exclusively on any one area.”

In the James, tests last year found PCB concentrations in blue catfish and carp so high that state health officials issued an advisory about the risks they pose. The advisory suggests that people eat no blue catfish and no more than two meals a month of carp taken from a 43-mile stretch between the Interstate 95 bridge in Richmond and Flowerdew Hundred below Hopewell.

The advisory also suggests that pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children eat no carp or blue catfish from that stretch.

PCBs are oily, synthetic chemicals once used to insulate transformers and other electrical equipment. The manufacturing of PCBs was stopped in the United States in 1977, but the chemicals persist in mud and soil for decades.

PCBs do not readily dissolve in water, so they fall to river bottoms and stick to the mud. Fish get tainted by feeding off the bottom or by eating bottom feeders.

The chemicals pose no immediate danger, but eating tainted fish over many years could pose a risk, health officials say. The officials consider PCBs a potential health problem when levels exceed 600 parts per billion in fish. PCBs in the James River fish ranged from 267 parts per billion to, in one catfish sample, 3,212 parts per billion.

Because PCBs drop to the bottom of rivers, they are not considered a problem in drinking water.

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