Fish in Lower Leon Creek found with high levels of PCBs

With its weedy banks and shallow waters, Lower Leon Creek looks lazy, idling beneath the willows that arch over its bends, and gently wending south towards the Medina River. It seems to be the perfect place to drop a line and wait for lunch to bite your hook.

But angling can be hazardous to your health in at least one part of Leon Creek, where some fish have tested as having 15 times the hazardous level of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The findings prompted the Texas Department of Health on August 27 to issue an advisory against eating any fish from a section of the creek from Highway 90 south to S.W. Military Drive, a segment that runs through the former Kelly Air Force Base and its golf course.

Although this is the first time the TDH has issued a PCB-related fish advisory for Leon Creek, it is not the first time this cancer-causing chemical has been found at or near Kelly. While Air Force officials insist there is no link between environmental contamination at the base and the tainted fish - and state environmental officials say no one reportedly knows where the fish ingested the PCBs - it must be noted that several years ago the military also pooh-poohed suspicions that Kelly was the source of underground contamination spreading beneath a nearby neighborhood. Upon further investigation, Kelly was discovered to be the culprit.

In this case, a lack of funding could prevent San Antonians from knowing the source and extent of the PCB contamination - and also the true threat to their health.

PCBs are industrial chemicals manufactured by Monsanto in the mid-1930s, and were widely used to cool electrical transformers. Although internal company documents from 1938 reveal that Monsanto knew PCBs were hazardous to human health, the U.S. government didn't ban the chemical until the 1970s. PCBs degrade slowly in the environment, which explains why 30 years after the ban, fish in Leon Creek are turning up with PCBs in their bodies.

As part of the TCEQ's groundwater compliance order to Kelly, the Air Force has been periodically sampling fish, water, and sediment from southern Leon Creek for about five years. According to a 1999 federal report, tests conducted by the Air Force showed PCBs (and the pesticide DDT, also banned long ago) in the fish and sediment, although at levels the state and federal government determined to be safe.

That 1999 report, generated by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, also noted that the Air Force detected PCBs in soil samples near Building 1592, which is near the boundary between Kelly and the North Kelly Gardens neighborhood. At one time, the Air Force stored transformers, waste, and solvents in this building; spills of these materials also happened around the site, which likely accounts for the PCBs in the dirt.

Despite the findings, the ATSDR determined the PCB levels were not a threat to human health.

Mark Weegar, the Texas Commision on Environmental Quality's project manager overseeing the cleanup at Kelly, said that in 2000 the Air Force detected PCBs and DDT in fish and sediment in Lower Leon Creek, although none of the chemical in surface or treated groundwater discharged from Kelly. But according to a TDH report, not until 2002 did the Air Force hire the health department - paying it more than $41,000 - to test 22 more fish for PCBs, mercury, pesticides, and other contaminants.

Neither TDH nor TCEQ officials said they knew the reason for the two-year delay. The Air Force did not return calls to the Current.

In August 2002, the TDH's tests found high levels of PCBs in spotted gar and carp - both bottom-feeding fish - from one section of Leon Creek, and "non-hazardous" levels of the chemical in a largemouth bass.

"The hypothesis is that sediment could be washing downstream and the fish migrate up and down the creek," Weegar said. "Who knows where the fish ingested the PCBs?"

Upstream, the TDH determined the level of PCBs in fish wasn't hazardous. Downstream of Kelly by Military Drive, carp also contained PCBs, but at "non-hazardous" levels.

According to a TDH timeline included in its report, test results were submitted to TDH's Seafood Safety Division in November 2002, and the report was completed in May 2003. It was released to the public three months later.

The TDH's Gary Heideman said the advisory could remain in effect indefinitely, unless additional testing shows the PCBs have decreased to "non-hazardous" levels. The TDH report calls for more monitoring, "should resources exist," but Heideman said the health department doesn't have the money for more tests. "We won't be able to get out there without a grant or money from somewhere," he said.

Is Kelly the source of the PCBs? Or another industry discharging its waste upstream? Without more tests - and a timely release of their results - it will be impossible to know what lurks in Leon Creek.

A public meeting was held about the fish advisory after the Current's deadline. See the September 18 issue for a follow-up story.

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