Some fish that live in one of Atlanta's creeks, a tributary to the Chattahoochee River, have elevated levels of chemicals in their bodies, including pesticides that went out of use in the 1980s.
Proctor Creek, on Atlanta’s Westside, has had issues with e. coli and fecal coliform bacteria caused by sewer overflows, but a new report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency documents man-made toxic chemicals in fish caught at a fishing spot in Bankhead, near Maddox Park.
“People have fished in these areas, I've been told, since the 1960s,” said Darryl Haddock, the environmental education director at the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance. “You might have second or third generation families that have lived here, and they go to these spots.”
The EPA tested four different kinds of fish, and found in two species – green sunfish and redbreast sunfish – levels of PCBs and pesticides high enough that the state might consider recommending that people limit their consumption of the fish, according to the report. Georgia's Department of Natural Resources issues guidelines on eating fish.
PCBs are chemicals left over from manufacturing and electrical components which, in high enough amounts, can cause respiratory problems and liver damage, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The pesticides are dieldrin, which was used on termites, and was phased out in the late 1980s; and a chemical called heptachlor epoxide, which comes from the pesticides heptachlor and chlordane, which are also both out of use.
“You don't typically see these pesticides on fish consumption advisories,” said Jason Ulseth, advocate and spokesperson for the nonprofit Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “PCBs, however, is fairly common across the Chattahoochee watershed, because they are so persistent in the environment. You usually see them in larger predatory fish, but you usually don't see them listed as a health advisory on a fish this small or this type of species.”
The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper has volunteers who regularly test water quality in Proctor Creek, but Ulseth said they’re typically checking for things like e. coli levels. Chemicals that have persisted in the environment are more expensive to test for, he said. Ulseth said he hopes to do more research to find out the history of the pesticides in the creek, and to identify if there are hotspots with high contamination levels.
There has been more attention on Proctor Creek and the neighborhoods around it lately. The city of Atlanta is working with the EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, other agencies, nonprofits and foundations to clean up the troubled creek. Meanwhile, big local groups like the Blank Foundation and the Chick-Fil-A Foundation are putting money and energy into Vine City and English Avenue, neighborhoods near the creek’s headwaters. With all of that, plus the BeltLine, which will eventually cross the creek near Maddox Park, interest from developers is increasing too.
“I think there are other research questions to ask,” Haddock said, “that can spin off this study on the sunfish and really help us to understand what is really happening in the watershed. What is legacy, what is contemporary, and where do we go with this knowledge?”
The EPA declined an interview to elaborate on the study.