Thursday, December 6, 2007

Pee Dee Area Physicians Call On DHEC to Test Humans for Mercury

Florence, SC – In light of mercury threats to the Pee Dee region, area physicians and concerned citizens gathered outside the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) Florence offices at 12:15 p.m. today to request formally that DHEC begin testing human populations in the Pee Dee region for mercury contamination. Citizens living near the proposed site of Santee Cooper's coal plant also spoke, asking that they be tested.

A recent investigative series in the Charleston Post & Courier documented alarming and dangerous levels of mercury in South Carolina citizens who eat fish from the state's mercury contaminated rivers, including the Pee Dee. State utility Santee Cooper plans to build a pulverized coal plant in the midst of a "Mercury Triangle"; mercury levels there violate state and federal laws and are among the highest in the state.

According to Dr. Bernetha George, one of the physicians requesting DHEC conduct testing, "DHEC has an historic opportunity to live up to their mission by looking into this issue. First we have to get the data. Until then, put the plant on hold."

DHEC has stated that the agency will not begin testing without a request from a physician. At today's conference, two physicians in addition to Dr. George requested testing, Dr. John Mattheis, and Dr. Timonthy Dancy. Both practice at Mcleod Hospital. A fourth physician, Dr. Ken Kammer, was detained by surgery, but asked that a statement be read in his name.

Dr. Kammer's statement reads: "The agency has known for years of the threat posed to the environment: mercury fish consumption advisories are in effect for every major watershed in the coastal plain, most major lakes and for the entire coast. The agency now knows, thanks to publicized laboratory findings, that citizens in this state have dangerously high levels of mercury in their bodies. Given mercury's toxic effects, this is a clear health problem."

In addition, members of the community who live near the proposed plant site or who have been active hunters and fishers, spoke to reporters, volunteering to be tested.

"I have been a fish eater all my life, fishing on the Pee Dee river," said Mike King, whose home is just five miles from the proposed site. "From 1985 to 1995 I ate fish from Black Creek every week. I cooked my fish right on the bank, so I feel I need to be tested."

Terry Cook, who lives within a half mile of the proposed site, said: "My husband and I have hunted and fished along the Pee Dee and Lynches rivers all our lives. I have raised five children on these rivers. It's a shame my grandchildren will not know the same joy and peace."

Terry Cook also pointed out that the proposed site is within five miles of a grammar school and a high school. "I think they [DHEC] need to test us all before going forward with any permits," she concluded.

Present also was Reverend Leo Woodberry, who directs the Eastern Carolina Community Development Corporation: "With this coal plant, we need to be very careful before putting up yet another plant that may be a risk to our community." Of the fourteen major industries in Florence County, seven emit between 6,900 and 4,271,543 pounds of pollutants annually, according to a toxic releases inventory that is tracked nationally. Citing the website, which tracks emissions by county, Reverend Woodberry noted, "We already have a lot of toxic emissions in this county."

Close to 600 people, many of them in the Kingsburg and Pamplico area, have signed a petition opposing the plant.

Two weeks ago Dr. Ken Kammer submitted a formal letter to DHEC requesting that a draft air permit that would allow Santee Cooper to emit up to 138 pounds of toxic mercury be suspended and that the agency undertake an extensive campaign to test human populations for mercury.

On December 4, DHEC extended until January 22 the comment period for the draft air permit.

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