When environmental regulators last winter tried to solve the mystery of how a toxic chemical wound up in the mountain-fed waters of Icicle...

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LEAVENWORTH, Chelan County — When environmental regulators last winter tried to solve the mystery of how a toxic chemical wound up in the mountain-fed waters of Icicle Creek, they stumbled on a surprising potential culprit: a federal fish hatchery.

Tipped by news reports of a Montana hatchery that had polluted a local stream with paint from the walls of concrete fish tanks, Washington regulators tested paint chips from the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery. They discovered the paint contained PCBs, once-ubiquitous industrial chemicals now banned because they are toxic in minute levels and stay around for years.

Alerted to the findings, hatchery managers shut down tanks containing 1.6 million tiny chinook salmon, moved them into tanks without the paint and started testing hatchery fish and nearby stream sediments for contamination.

“We don’t want to jeopardize our fish, and we don’t want to jeopardize the water we put our fish in,” said Steve Croci, deputy manager of three U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hatcheries, including the one in Leavenworth.

The Leavenworth incident is the latest to raise questions about whether a hatchery system that pours hundreds of millions of fish into U.S. waters every year is releasing a hidden stream of pollutants.

About PCBs

Once widely used in everything from electrical insulators to underwater paint, PCBs are now considered a long-lived pollutant associated with increased risk of cancer, reduction of immune function and impairment of the neurological development of fetuses.

The family of chemicals, polychlorinated biphenyls, lasts for years in the environment. PCBs can concentrate in fat, and are passed along through the food chain when one animal eats another.

Elevated PCB levels in fish are a common source of warnings from Washington state health officials to limit consumption of fish caught in particular rivers or lakes. Information and advisories can be found at www.doh.wa.gov/ehp/oehas/EHA_fish_adv.htm

Exposure to PCBs in fish can be reduced by grilling fish so that the fat drips off, and by removing the skin, fat and internal organs.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Washington state Department of Health

State and federal hatchery officials worry that chemicals such as PCBs and dioxins, at too high a level, could weaken the very fish they are trying to raise — or pose a hazard to people and animals that later eat those fish.

Icicle Creek mystery

The mystery at Icicle Creek began when state environmental regulators found elevated PCB levels in mountain whitefish that were caught to test the stream’s water quality. They then tested the hatchery paint and found PCBs in it. State public-health officials decided the contaminant levels weren’t high enough to warrant advising people to stop eating fish from the creek.

Federal officials don’t know yet whether fish raised at Leavenworth show elevated PCB levels, or if it was the hatchery that contaminated Icicle Creek. Tests on the fish and creek sediment may not be completed for months. The hatchery itself was built in the 1930s, and the manufacture of PCBs used in products including paint was banned in the late 1970s.

The questions about the origin of PCBs are new ones for hatcheries accustomed to tracking whether their fish are tainted with diseases, not chemicals.

But scattered reports of hatchery-related contamination, elevated contaminant levels in farm-raised salmon and possible chemical contaminants in food fed to hatchery fish have caught people’s attention.

“We have not previously been looking real hard for that kind of thing, in part because it’s real expensive [to test] and when any of the testing was done as a kind of screening there were very low levels or nothing found,” said Joy Evered, a veterinary medical officer for U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s fish-health center in Olympia.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife, along with the Department of Ecology, this year will begin testing for evidence of toxins in fish and fish feed at 10 of the state’s 90 hatcheries, said John Kerwin, hatcheries-division manager. Kerwin said he’s not aware of any problems but acknowledged that the department hasn’t taken a concerted look. “We want to ensure we’re providing a safe product.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, meanwhile, is preparing to test more of its hatcheries for contaminants. A survey of 14 hatcheries last year turned up three with fish contaminated enough to fall under Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, similar to Washington state’s, that recommend eating the fish in limited quantities or not at all.

“That was really a surprise to us in a lot of the cases. We didn’t expect to see those concentrations that we saw,” said Everett Wilson, chief of the division of environmental quality.

Among the problems that have cropped up:

• In Montana, the state killed more than 800,000 hatchery-raised trout last year after tests found elevated PCBs in the fish. The state also issued a do-not-eat order for trout in Big Spring Creek, downstream from a state hatchery. Part of the hatchery is now the subject of a massive cleanup effort, after tests found PCB-laden paint was used in the tanks where fish were raised. The paint flaked off and contaminated Big Spring Creek as well.

• The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Bozeman Fish Technology Center in Montana last year canceled its annual kids’ fishing derby over concerns about PCBs. A survey found a hatchery fish had 0.2 parts per million. That’s below U.S. Food and Drug Administration consumption threshold of 2 parts per million for commercially sold fish, but at a level where EPA guidelines recommend eating only half a serving per month. The center doesn’t know where the PCBs came from.

• In New England, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned last year that Atlantic salmon and trout raised in federal hatcheries in the Northeast have high-enough levels of dioxins and other pollutants that people should eat no more than half a serving a month.

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Extent of problem unclear

The biggest problem for human consumption could lie with hatcheries that raise fish to large sizes before releasing them, potentially exposing them to more contamination.

The chinook salmon at Leavenworth are usually released when they are only 4 inches long. Salmon will actually get a much larger dose of PCBs once they reach saltwater and start to eat contaminated sea life, said Sandie O’Neill, a research scientist for the state Fish and Wildlife department who is studying chemical contamination in fish.

While Montana has checked all of its hatcheries in the wake of the Big Spring Creek problem, response to the issue varies widely. States including Idaho, Utah and Colorado say they have no plans to test their hatcheries for contaminants like PCBs.

In addition to a possible lack of awareness about the issue, hatcheries must balance the costly tests for chemicals with their goal of producing fish, said Wilson of the Fish and Wildlife Service. “They essentially try to raise as many fish as they can with the money they have.”

The situation at Leavenworth is similar to that at Montana’s Big Springs Trout Hatchery, where PCB-laden paint was found in the tanks.

The state hasn’t issued any new advisories about eating fish released into streams and lakes populated by Big Springs hatchery trout. That’s because some waters are already subject to advisories for mercury contamination, and because the PCB levels in the trout should decline as they grow bigger after their release, said Gary Bertellotti, head of the state’s hatchery system.


Biological-science technician Tyson Lankford scoops up spring Chinook salmon fry for tagging at the Leavenworth hatchery. These are among the last fish hatched in tanks contaminated with PCBs.

“As a state agency we shouldn’t be stocking fish with PCB levels that could create a public or environmental hazard,” he said.

The state and Monsanto, a past maker of PCBs, are being sued in state court by five property owners who have land alongside Big Spring Creek. The owners are seeking to have it turned into a class-action suit covering roughly 250 property owners.

Leavenworth is the only reported case of a hatchery in Washington contaminated with the PCB paint. But Bertellotti, who has worked at hatcheries in Idaho, Washington, California and Nevada, said he has seen other hatcheries sporting paint similar to the blue-green paint that is the source of his problems.

He’s not aware of other agencies systematically testing the paint in their hatcheries, he said.

“I don’t think anyone wants to admit it” might be there, he said.

Kerwin said he didn’t know if Washington state hatcheries, which are up to 100 years old, ever got similar paint. But he said the hatcheries are unlikely to have paint flaking off the tanks because they are meticulously maintained.

Bertellotti, however, cautioned that such attention to detail may have been part of the problem at Big Springs. The PCB paint was used because it was supposed to ward off algae and look nice. When it started flaking off, tanks were repeatedly repainted, sending more paint chips into Big Spring Creek.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com

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