Blog Authors | Oceana USA

Blog Posts by: Dawn

California has been at the forefront for warning its citizens about mercury and seafood. As the result of a lawsuit filed by the Attorney General Bill Lockyer under Proposition 65 (the state's right to know law), grocery stores have been posting warning signs at the seafood counter with the FDA's advice on which fish to avoid if you're a woman of child-bearing age (like myself) or a child, something we'd like to see spread to stores across the country.

Last summer, Lockyer filed another lawsuit against major canned tuna companies for failing to warn consumers about exposure to mercury in their products. Albacore tuna is on the list of fish the FDA advises women of child-bearing and children to reduce their consumption of because of high levels of mercury. And even chunk light, if eaten too frequently, could cause problems because of mercury levels.

At the end of last week, however, the FDA took issue with the state, and instead of encouraging the work the state has been doing better educate its citizens about the FDA's consumption advisories, the FDA is now working to prevent the state of California from using the state's right to know law. And in doing so, is siding with the tuna companies in the lawsuit.

"California should not interfere with FDA's carefully considered approach of advising consumers of both the benefits and possible risks of eating seafood,'' FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford said in the letter. Under federal law, he said, the FDA "has been given broad authority to regulate the labels of food products,'' and a state has no authority to take a stricter approach.

FDA's approach (issuing advisories) is all well and good, if people actually know about the advisory, and unfortunately many people do not. California is taking the FDA's advisory and bringing it to consumers, something Oceana is trying to do throughout the country. Given the FDA's responsibility to protect Americans and its support of an advisory, the question remains, why has the FDA done such a poor job of educating the public and making the advisory known? And why are they backing the tuna companies, instead of protecting the public?

Help us find out! Take action and contact the FDA today.

"A new study by Harvard University doctors concludes that pregnant women can boost their baby's intelligence by eating fish a couple of times a week, but only if they avoid varieties that contain large concentrations of mercury."

This study supports what we have known all along. Fish can have great health benefits from the Omega-3 fatty acids that they contain. Unfortunately, mercury in fish can have negative health effects, partcularly for a developing baby.

In fact, researchers found:

"For each additional serving of fish each week, the babies' intelligence scores increased by an average of almost 7 percent. But for every increase of 1 part per million of mercury, the babies' intelligence scores dropped by 12.5 percent. A woman's mercury level could rise by 1 part per million if she ate a serving of swordfish once a week, said Dr. Emily Oken of Harvard Medical School."

Now we just have to work to get the public informed of which fish to avoid because they are high in mercury. And particularly, the fish for which the government has issued consumption advisories. Grocery stores should post signs wherever fish under the advisory are sold.

This story has been going on for a while now in Alabama. It has been discovered that the former mercury-cell chlorine plant operated by Olin chemicals continues to release mercury into the environment, even after it has converted to new technology. Why? Rather than disposing of the wastes properly, waste byproducts of the old mercury-cell process sit on-site, fully exposed to weather and rainfall.  Their only protection is a chain-link fence. In addition, mercury-containing brine was used to pave a local street.

The Mobile Register has been following this story pretty extensively. On one occasion, our own scientist, Kim Warner, went down to Alabama to help conduct soil and water testing on-site.

This article features interviews with environmental managers and scientists (who have experience with current or former mercury-cell chlorine plants) weighing in on the dangers of this contaminated site.

This just continues to show the dangers of the mercury-cell process and the need for all remaining plants to convert to mercury-free technology. I just wonder: if this happened at a plant in Mobile, AL, how contaminated is the site of the plant in Muscle Shoals, AL that's still operating?

I am am generally concerned about healthy eating and am also a woman of childbearing age (not that I plan on having children any time soon). February is Heart Health month and I know that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are healthy for my heart. So I went to the American Heart Association's (AHA's) Web site to see what they had to say about healthy eating.

According to the AHA, I should be eating fatty fish at least twice a week. And they helpfully list fatty fish like albacore tuna and mackerel among its list of recommended fish.

BUT WAIT! If I followed the AHA's advice, I would be consuming dangerous amounts of mercury.The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency specifically recommend in their consumer advisory that I should limit my intake of all fish to two meals a week, and that if I eat albacore tuna, I should only eat one meal of it a week. The AHA recommendation completely omits this advice found in the government's consumer advisory, as well as the warning that women of childbearing age and children should not eat swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish or shark at all.

In fact, some fish have so much mercury, that CBS recently reported on a Finnish study (published oddly enough in an AHA journal) that showed that eating fish with high levels of mercury can counteract the benefits, and in some cases, actually increase the risk of heart disease and heart attacks.

The public has the right to know the full story. We should know how best to protect our hearts, which includes knowing which fish to avoid because of high levels of mercury and how much fish we should really be eating. Take action! Talk to your grocer about informing the public of the FDA/EPA consumer advisory.

Late Friday, Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law AB 2672 (Simitian), making California the first state to ban discharges from sewage from toilets into state waters. This is in addition to the bills passed earlier in the week banning the discharge sewage from sinks, showers and laundries (also called graywater), giving California some of the strictest cruise pollution laws in the country.

"I'm tremendously pleased," Assemblyman Joe Simitian (the bill's author) said Friday afternoon. "This really puts California at the forefront of coastal protection. The cruise ship industry has been a growing economic benefit to the state, but it also poses growing problems in terms of coastal protection."

(Quote from The Contra Costa Times.)

This is exciting news for our oceans and the state of California! Many thanks to all of you who sent e-mails to the state legislature over the last few months -- this couldn't have happened without you.

Last week, a former executive of Holland America Cruise Line pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in a pollution case in Miami federal court. He was charged with filing false reports about the existence of an environmental audit program at the company, one of Carnival Corp.'s brands.

Richard K. Softye, vice president for operating line compliance at the Seattle-based cruise line, was sentenced to three years probation, ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and perform 450 hours of community service...

"The charge against Softye stems from a pollution case settled in 2002 in which Carnival pleaded guilty to six felony counts and agreed to pay $18 million in fines related to the dumping of oily discharges into the waters off Florida and the Caribbean."

And this industry keeps asking us to trust it! They talk about their industry-wide environmental policies, and many times, when a state has considered legislation for cruise ship pollution, the cruise industry has called for a voluntary agreement in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) instead of legislation. But as we keep seeing, these promises to deal with their wastes are unenforceable and do not work.

This is just more evidence of why an enforceable national law, like the Clean Cruise Ships Act, is needed.

California has the second largest cruise ship market in the United States, and the industry expects the number of calls (nearly 800 in 2003) to increase by 25% during the next decade. Currently lax state and federal anti-pollution laws allow cruise ships to dump inadequately treated sewage in state waters, untreated sewage 3 miles from shore, and wastewater from kitchens, sinks, baths and laundries (called "graywater") can be dumped anywhere without treatment.

Two bills are under consideration in California to combat this preventable pollution. Assembly Bill 2093 (Nakano) would prevent cruise ships from dumping graywater along the California coast. Just last week, this bill was passed unanimously by the Senate Environmental Quality Committee and now awaits a vote before the Senate Appropriations Committee. It has already passed the Assembly and is unopposed by the cruise industry.

AB 2672 (Simitian) would prohibit the discharge of sewage into state waters. The bill has passed the Assembly, and the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. It now awaits a vote before the Senate Appropriations Committee in August. Passage will be tougher because the cruise industry opposes this bill. The industry opposes it because it wants an exemption so that certain types of treatment systems can discharge into state waters. These treatment systems have been successful at treating bacteria but are not designed to treat nutrients.

Nutrients have a big effect on our coastal waters. Because of this cruise ships should not dump sewage (treated or untreated) into our coastal waters. In addition, it has been demonstrated that technology exists to hold wastes not only until the ship leaves state waters, but out to 12 miles! We will continue to work in California to pass this important piece of legislation.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposed on June 14, 2004, making secret part or all of some Environmental Impact Statements on its actions. The proposed directive, published in the Federal Register, would carve a major loophole in the 34-year-old National Environmental Policy Act -- which requires that the federal government publicly disclose the environmental impacts of major federal actions before they are taken. This comes a week after the House voted to allow an exemption from NEPA for projects that involve renewable energy.

Under the current law, the government is required to conduct a survey of the potential environemental impacts of any project, develop alternatives, and allow feedback from the public in their decisions. Changes like this undercut the environmental protections provided in the law, and the public participation in the process.

Oceana's victory in getting Royal Caribbean Cruises to adopt advanced wastewater treatment technology fleetwide is a tremendous step, but it is not the final solution to the problem of cruise ship pollution.  The industry is still growing.  The number of passengers that travel each year is increasing bringing with it more and more pollution, and cruise terminals are being developed in more and more cities throughout the country.  Cruise ships are no longer limited to Florida and Alaska, but headed to places like Norfolk, VA, and Gloucester, MA.

Because of this, it is not enough for one company to adopt advanced wastewater treatment technology.  Legislation is needed to combat this problem, and the Clean Cruise Ships Act of 2004 (PDF fact sheet) which has been introduced by Senator Durbin (D-IL) and Representative Farr (D-CA) would be the way to do it.  

This bill would:

  • prohibit the discharge of sewage, graywater and oily bilge water within twelve miles of the coast;
  • set standards for the treatment of sewage and graywater that can be released once they are outside of twelve miles;
  • ensure illegal discharges do not continue by requiring better inspection and monitoring.

It is important that we continue working to clean up our oceans and generate support for this bill.  Please contact your Members of Congress and ask them to support this legislation!