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LAVACA BAY, TX, June 22, 2006 --/WORLD-WIRE/--
Calhoun County fishermen, environmental activists, and concerned Calhoun County residents say state and federal agencies were in collusion with Alcoa over the mercury cleanup in Lavaca Bay. They say the recent December 2004 settlement between U.S., Texas, and Alcoa over the Lavaca Bay Mercury Superfund not only failed in its attempt to address the health impacts of mercury on the mostly poor minority fishing communities, but it also under-estimated the amount of mercury released to the environment and therefore the cleanup.

Sediments in Lavaca Bay were contaminated with mercury from past operations at Alcoa's Point Comfort, Texas facility. From l967 until l979 Alcoa operated a chlor-alkali processing unit at the plant and discharged wastewater containing mercury into Lavaca Bay.

Federal EPA documents state that Alcoa discharged an average of 67 pounds per day into Lavaca Bay from l967 until 1970. Internal and confidential Alcoa documents and transcripts uncovered from a 1994 court case in Washington between Alcoa and their insurers estimated l,223,755 pounds of mercury was released between l967 to l979 and that on a 5 day normal working period in the chlor-alkali unit, 1500 pounds of mercury was lost and flow charts showed mercury going to the bay.

Diane Wilson, founder of Calhoun County Resource Watch who coordinated the meeting in Port Lavaca, said, "We need an explanation for the hundreds of thousands of pounds difference between what was reported in documents recovered in a court vault in Washington and what federal EPA superfund documents say was dumped. Was there collusion? Then, too, explain to me a memo that showed Alcoa and a Texas A & M scientist considering a study to show the mercury levels in crabs from Lavaca Bay by 'blending' them with clean crabs from another bay."

Juan Parras, community outreach for Environmental Law and Justice Clinic, Houston, said. "We stand with the community in seeking the truth and ensuring that the true extent of mercury contamination in Lavaca Bay is addressed by State and Federal officials and that the health of the community--its residents and small family businesses--be place ahead of profit and business as usual.

In the early l970's, mercury levels in oysters in Lavaca Bay were significantly elevated and the Texas Department of Health closed parts of the bay to the harvesting of oysters. In 1988, the Department issued a closure order prohibiting the taking of finfish and crabs for consumption from a portion of Lavaca and Cox Bays, based on mercury levels found in these resources. The closure order remains in effect for portions of Lavaca Bay.

A Preliminary Public Health Assessment prepared by the Texas Department of Health stated in l995 that eating fish and crabs contaminated with mercury at the concentrations observed from the closure area of Lavaca Bay could affect the unborn fetus of pregnant women and, as such, classified the Lavaca Bay site an urgent public health hazard.

Methylmercury is a nonspecific toxin, meaning it can attack a variety of body systems. It often damages the central nervous system, resulting in consequences such as concentration difficulty, memory loss, and mood changes. Mercury can also cause birth defects. Recently, epidemiological and biochemical research studies have shown that mercury is directly linked to the development of autism spectrum disorders and is significantly toxic to the gastrointestinal, immunological, metabolic and neurobiological systems in children.

An Alcoa spokeswoman said the company had estimated the mercury intake for commercial fishermen and their families, compared it with EPA guidelines, and it was concluded the risk was below a level of concern. However, Dr. John Villanacci, in charge of Public Health Assessment at Texas Department of Health, said the agency ran into a wall of silence in the Vietnamese community and suspected the people were afraid to admit consuming fish from the bay because they would also be admitting to breaking the law. That left nothing to investigate. No exposed population. No tests.

Included in the discussion of possible legal options against Alcoa and the Calhoun County Navigation District and a community health study on mercury was the burgeoning lineup of proposed projects near Lavaca/Matagorda Bay. These include 2 coal burning power plants, a Liquid Natural Gas Terminal, and the deepening and widening of the ship channel to accommodate deeper drafted ships and dual industry traffic.

Jim Blackburn, Houston environmental lawyer, stated, "With the Calhoun County Navigation District's proposed deepening and widening of the ship channel, the focus must return, again, to the mercury contamination of Lavaca/Matagorda Bay. Given the failures of the Alcoa Mercury Superfund, it is reasonable to ask the US Environmental Protection Agency to step back in and take a very active role by either reopening the Record of Decision on the Mercury Superfund or to insure that community health studies are part of the impacts associated with the proposed deepening and widening of the ship channel in Matagorda Bay."

Cynthia Sarthou, Gulf Restoration Network, said, "The GRN is very concerned that dredging of the sediments in this area will resuspend mercury contaminated sediments. Mercury in the marine environment bioaccumulates up the food chain, resulting in contamination of recreationally and commercially important fish species, as well as crab and oysters. In short, we are looking at a potential disaster for local fishermen."

Wilson stated, "We know the uphill battle we are facing and we also know what Alcoa is expecting of us --- to be apathetic. That's another document we uncovered. Alcoa's public relations director, Joe Goldman, stated, "We can expect the pot to be stirred at almost any time. It is reasonable to assume the State Health Department will continue to be objective in the matter of the mercury contamination unless tempted to succumb to political pressures, and the general public is apathetic unless stimulated in some manner--either or both of which could occur."

Diane Wilson
Calhoun County Resource Watch
361-785-4680 or 361-676-0663

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