- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 5, 2006

RICHMOND (AP) — State and federal officials have reopened inquires into the source of toxic chemicals contaminating fish in the James River.

In 2002, high levels of PCBs turned up in fish between Richmond and Hopewell, which resulted in Virginia health officials advising pregnant women and young children to avoid eating certain fish.

A $94,000 state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) investigation identified four contaminated sites as potential sources of PCBs in the river. However, the probe did not find a specific path of pollution, such as a leak from a dump, that could be closed.

One of the four sites was Sims Metal — a scrap-recycling company now called Sims Hugo Neu — which contained twice the level of PCBs at which the federal government typically requires a cleanup.

The contaminated spot is roughly in the center of the Sims site and about a quarter-mile west of the James, DEQ officials said.

A company official said the firm has not heard from the DEQ since 2004 and is not involved in activities that involve PCBs.

The department sent its findings to the federal Environmental Protection Agency in a July 2004 letter. Then nothing happened for two years.

“There is no record of this letter ever having been received,” EPA spokeswoman Bonnie Smith said Friday, several days after the Richmond Times-Dispatch inquired.

Now the investigation is back on track.

“In hindsight, we probably should have communicated better with the EPA,” said DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden.

He called the PCB-tainted site a potential threat to people and the river. But Mr. Hayden said there is no proof that the site is polluting the James. “Those are the kinds of things we need to look at,” he said.

The Sims company buys used metal, cuts it to fit into furnaces and sells it to steel mills.

The company’s general manager, Rod Colton, said he is not aware of PCB contamination there.

“We are not in that arena,” he said. “We don’t handle PCBs.”

However, some contamination could have occurred years before Sims bought the site in 1997, Mr. Colton said.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, 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 tough chemicals persist in mud and soil for decades.

While the chemicals pose no immediate danger, eating tainted fish over many years may increase one’s risk of cancer, state health officials say.

PCBs may also increase the risk of children developing such problems as low birth weight.

When PCBs get in a river, they do not readily dissolve. They typically fall to the bottom and stick to the mud. Fish get tainted by feeding off the bottom or by eating bottom feeders.

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