Folks in Donna, a small city down in South Texas, get their drinking water from the Donna Reservoir and Canal System. But there’s something fishy going on down there. The water has been designated as safe for drinking, but the fish that live in the water are contaminated with dangerous levels of cancer-causing chemicals and aren’t safe to eat. The Environmental Protection Agency has been looking into the water’s toxicity.
The Texas Tribune covered this story over the weekend, but long before that a local advocacy group has been looking to make things safer in the region. Kelly Haragan, director of the environmental law clinic at the University of Texas at Austin, says that the problem dates back to 1993.
“They had known that PCBs were in the area, but in 1993 is when they first tested a fish that was caught in the Donna reservoir that had extremely high levels of PCBs,” Haragan says. “Then they tested the family that was eating that fish and they had high levels in their blood.”
Around the same time, a unusual number of infants were born with birth defects in the area, which prompted the EPA to investigate issues with water toxicity. Those birth defects aren’t happening like they used to, but there is still a dangerous level of these chemicals in the fish caught in the reservoir. And people are still eating those fish. Warning signs around the lake often get vandalized, but even when they are there, they aren’t very clear about why fishing is banned in the Donna Reservoir.
“When the signs were there, they weren’t very clear how significant the health hazard was,” Haragan says. “They said people weren’t allowed to fish from the reservoir, but I don’t think the message got through that it could harm their health and it could harm their children’s health.”
Officials have taken some steps to help alleviate the problem, like shocking the fish in the lake to kill them. But the problem persists. Haragan says that it will likely take a larger effort to clean up the reservoir, including getting rid of a concrete tunnel that is likely leaching the PCBs in the lake.
“The reality of it is that they need to clean up the source of the PCBs,” Haragan says. “They need to route the water around the siphon, this old concrete structure, and immediately take some steps to better inform people about fishing, and do things like shocking the fish in the lake, putting some signs actually out in the water so they don’t get torn down.”
Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.
Web post prepared by Alexandra Hart.