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By Steve McCadams

Recent postings of fish advisory signs by Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation along the Big Sandy embayment portion of Kentucky Lake have the region buzzing. Property owners, anglers, businesses and various tourist related entities have concerns and questions.

News of a warning not to eat bass from these popular fishing waters have shocked most who yearn to know more about why contaminants---in this case high levels of mercury---have been discovered and for the first time in this area merit the warning of increased risks of cancer or other serious illnesses in humans.

Signs warn that fish---bass in this case---should not be eaten by children, pregnant or nursing women. All others, says the sign, should limit consumption to one meal per month.

Most people aren’t quite sure what to make of it all. Hats have been removed. Heads have been scratched. Puzzled looks are the norm.

Nowhere on the sign offers readers a phone number or other contact information in the event they want to know more.

How long will the advisory last? What can be done? What are the long range effects for the area?

Apparently the level of confusion and concerned has gotten the attention of several local officials and legislators. The whole saga has stimulated a public meeting planned for Monday night at Paris Landing State Park Inn. It begins at 6 p.m.

Anyone with questions or an interest as to what’s going on with this recent fish advisory is encouraged to attend. Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation will make a presentation on the matter at hand.

Several questions have emerged since this column appeared last week and helped inform the public about the ongoing saga.

Information received from TDEC after last week’s column went to press has helped answer some questions, although several remain. More details of just how many fish were sampled to arrive at the warning remain unanswered and the signs did not make mention of other species such as crappie and bluegill.

A lengthy report received in an email titled: “Frequently Asked Questions About Mercury and Fish Tissue Advisories”, which is posted at (, according to Eric Ward, Deputy Communications Director, is one place to gather some information.

Unfortunately, everyone concerned about this shocking news doesn’t necessarily have computer access or is internet savvy.

Some interesting information contained says both crappie and bluegill are not under the advisory. Somewhat troubling, however, is the finding within the report that fish in West Sandy creek (the area behind the levee known locally as Springville bottom) has not been tested!

Springville bottom is a very popular fishing area at times when water levels permit. Anglers will no doubt want to ask why it has not been tested? Meanwhile, other portions of Kentucky Lake are not under the advisory and the northern boundary of the advisory stops at a line running from Pace Point into Big Eagle Recreation Area, referred to locally as Pine Point in Eagle Creek.

Here are a few findings also in the report but are only a small summary: Why bass? Bass species are predator fish at the top of the aquatic food chain, so mercury tends to biomagnify (build up at higher levels) in them. Also, because mercury tends to accumulate in muscle tissue rather than in fat, as is the case with organic compounds such as PCBs, they tend to accumulate in greater concentrations in the more muscular gamefish rather than the fattier rough fish or catfish.

For the same reason, some of the conventional wisdom concerning ways to reduce the contaminant levels in fish by broiling the catch or by removing as much fat as possible, are not effective with mercury.

The advisory was about eating fish. Do other activities on this body of water carry risk from mercury?

These advisories pertain only to fish consumption, says TDEC. Swimming, boating, wading, or catch and release fishing from these waters carries no risk. Tap water from approved providers does not contain mercury.

To learn more---and there is more to learn---about this recent discovery and troubling news tell your friends and neighbors to attend Monday night’s meeting and perhaps gain a better perception of what the present and future holds.


Signs erected last week at several public boat ramps within the Big Sandy River portion of Kentucky Lake by Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation are sending shock waves to a concerned and confused public.

The signs read: “Warning! Bass from this body of water contain contaminants at levels thought to increase the risk of cancer or other serious illness in humans. These fish should NOT be eaten by children, pregnant or nursing women. All others should limit consumption to one meal per month!”…TDEC

Alarming news like this has locals wondering what’s up? Why has the dramatic warning been so quiet in coming from a public state agency? Why have public meetings not been held to announce the findings and better inform the public of the situation at hand?

These questions and more are on the minds of folks who are just now hearing about the posting of the alarming signs. If state, county and local officials knew ahead of time about the forthcoming announcement why has more attention not been given to the public via various media outlets?

The news has long-range rippling effects to a wide variety of lake dwellers, recreational anglers, real estate agencies, tourism promotion, marinas, resorts, campgrounds and more. Once the word gets out the area has a chemical pollution problem---in this case high levels of mercury---based on TDEC sampling the fires of confusion and misinformation, fueled by concern, are very hard to put out.

A grocery list of questions began spinning in the heads of folks upon hearing the news and starring at the signs that, once read, beg more of the source of the problem and a solution to the dilemma.

TDEC’s news release dated January 19, which this writer received second hand, reads in part:

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation today announced the addition of Big Sandy River and its embayment on Kentucky Reservoir to Tennessee’s list of precautionary fish consumption advisories. The advisory is a result of fish tissue levels of mercury that exceed the trigger point of 0.3 parts per million, and is only in effect for species of bass. The Big Sandy River is in Henry, Benton, Carroll, and Henderson counties of West Tennessee.

“Unlike ‘do not consume’ advisories that warn the general population to avoid eating fish from a particular body of water altogether, precautionary fish consumption advisories are specifically directed to sensitive populations such as children, pregnant women, nursing mothers and those who may eat fish very frequently from the same body of water,” said Dr. Shari Meghreblian, TDEC deputy commissioner. “Children and pregnant or nursing mothers should avoid eating fish covered by the advisory. All others are cautioned to limit consumption to one meal per month.”

In 2007 and again in 2009, the department issued new mercury advisories in Tennessee based on a more stringent EPA trigger point recommended to states. At that time, TDEC identified additional sites where more data was needed. One of these sites was Big Sandy River, and in 2009, 2012, 2013, and 2014, TDEC collected additional fish tissue samples.

“The new Big Sandy advisory is for the river in its entirety, including its embayment on the Tennessee River,” Meghreblian said. “Mercury levels in Tennessee River fish (Kentucky Reservoir) are lower and the lake is not included in the advisory. Additionally, the advisory is limited to bass species such as largemouth and spotted bass. Popular gamefish such as crappie and bluegill are not included in the advisory as mercury levels in these fish tend to be much lower statewide.”

There is no known direct discharge of mercury into the Big Sandy River. Atmospheric deposition accumulated in sediment is considered the most likely origin of the mercury in the fish. Tributaries of the Big Sandy River tend to be small and as they are unlikely to contain a significant fishery, they have not been tested and are not included in the advisory. The waters adjacent to Paris Landing State Park plus the nearby Eagle Creek embayment are connected to the Tennessee River rather than Big Sandy embayment and are not included in the advisory.

“Eating fish with elevated levels of mercury is a risk Tennesseans can avoid,” said Division of Water Resources Director Tisha Calabrese-Benton. “Fishing advisories give fishermen and their families the information they need to make informed decisions about limiting their intake or avoiding fish from specific stream segments or bodies of water.”

The risk, however, is confined to the consumption of fish. Swimming and wading in these waters or catching and releasing fish are activities that do not expose the public to an increased risk from mercury.

TDEC has posted signs at primary public access points and will continue to communicate information about the fishing advisories.

Having read the news release and observed sigh postings the public seems to have a yearning for more information as to the long-term ramifications.

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency conducts stream sampling throughout the year in tributary creeks and streams within the Big Sandy watershed, which originates way back up in Carroll and Henderson counties before meandering its path into Kentucky Lake at the big culverts within the city limits of the town of Big Sandy itself.

However, TWRA has not reported red flags over the years from their benthic sampling and it would be interesting to know if their sampling mirrored TDEC’s alarming discovery. How much communication exits between these two state agencies?

More questions should be answered, however, so the local area and region can gain a better understanding of the matters at hand. Officials, biologists and spinners of public relations at any level within state or local governments best not underestimate the totality of this finding and better explain what’s going on in a series of public meetings to a public just now learning about the saga emerging at their front door.

The Kentucky Lake area is a beautiful gem and a magnet to a growing retirement community and recreational wonderland. Tourism here is an industry in and of itself, generating millions of dollars while creating jobs associated with it.

Somebody better wake up and better address this scenario. The rippling effects of news like this has far reaching implications both now and well into the future.



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