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Oregon DEQ Proposes A New Plan To Reduce Mercury Pollution

Biologists found the first documented examples of Oregon salmon spawning without going to the ocean in Green Peter Reservoir on a tributary of the Willamette River.
Shawn O'Neil/Flickr
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Biologists found the first documented examples of Oregon salmon spawning without going to the ocean in Green Peter Reservoir on a tributary of the Willamette River.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is proposing a new plan to reduce mercury pollution in the Willamette Basin.

The Total Maximum Daily Load — or TMDL plan — limits the amount of mercury pollution that can be present in all 12 sub-basins of the Willamette basin.

The new plan would be eight times more stringent than the current rules when it comes to the allowable amount of mercury found in fish tissue. 

“It’s DEQ's job to protect the health of Oregonians and the environment we all enjoy and depend on,” DEQ Director Richard Whitman said in a press statement. “While we have made some progress to reduce mercury levels in resident fish in the Willamette basin, we need to do more. This plan provides the framework for us all to work together to reduce polluted runoff and make it safer to consume fish from the river and its tributaries.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been working with the Department of Environmental Quality to develop an updated version of its 2011 plan.

DEQ’s Harry Esteve said one of the key management strategies is reducing soil erosion runoff. 

“Whether is forestry practices, agricultural practices, local government practices on roadways and construction projects and so forth. Just every effort that can be made to reduce the amount of soil erosion into our streams and rivers,” Esteve said.

If Oregon’s proposed  Total Maximum Daily Load standards are implemented,  regulators will have 18 months to write water quality management plan that bring their agencies or governments into compliance with the new DEQ standards. These plans would be submitted to the DEQ for review. 

The EPA has until the end of November to sign off on the new plan. 

Consumption of mercury-contaminated fish can result in negative health effects over time, said Delia Hernández with the Oregon Health Authority. They include damage to the organs, nervous system and reproductive system. Fetuses, babies and small children are especially vulnerable to the health effects of mercury.  

Hernández said her agency might be able to update fish advisories to allow for more consumption from fish from certain rivers if the new DEQ rules are successful at reducing the fish tissue concentration of mercury.

Willamette Riverkeeper Executive Director Travis Williams said the plan is a complicated process but protecting human and environmental health is worth it. 

“The part of this process that I think will be interesting is the ongoing sampling and understanding of how those trends are going. If we take all these measures is the amount of mercury in the system decreasing? That’s what we want to see,” Williams said. “So the monitoring and evaluation piece is really big here.”

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

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Monica Samayoa is a reporter with OPB’s Science & Environment unit. Before OPB, Monica was an on-call general assignment reporter at KQED in San Francisco. She also helped produce The California Report and KQED Newsroom. Monica holds a bachelor's degree in Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts from San Francisco State University.