Letter: Investigating the cause of lesions in the Brown Bullhead in Lake Memphremagog

in Letter to the Editor

The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources hosted a virtual public meeting last week to report on research that has been conducted by Vermont Fish and Wildlife scientists, investigating the cause of melanoma lesions in the Brown Bullhead population in Lake Memphremagog.

The meeting was recorded and can be found online.

The cancerous fish were first identified by anglers in 2012, who reported their findings to Fish and Game. A study was undertaken by United States Geological Survey and Vermont Dept. of Fish and Wildlife in 2014 and was published in 2019. Results were not conclusive.

ANR Secretary Julie Moore, biologists Peter Emerson and Rick Levy were not able to shed much light on why 25-40% of the 600 Brown Bullhead examined between 2014 and 2020 had visible tumors, or why the South Bay and Scott’s Cove were the sites in Lake Memphremagog where the cancerous fish were found.

The biologists reported that similar tumors have been found in this species of fish around the world, and always in environmentally contaminated waters.

The Memphremagog Brown Bullhead were tested for an array of chemicals known to cause these tumors, including PAHs, a chemical family related to petroleum products.

No relationship to any specific chemical has been identified so far. Mr. Emerson did say that, while no new advisory will be put out as to the safety of eating fish out of Memphremagog, he would not recommend eating fish with tumors.

The virtual audience had many questions for the panel, including the potential for landfill leachate, disposed of in Newport for the last decade or more, to be a causative factor.

No evidence has been found to prove or disprove a relationship. Landfill leachate has been identified as an environmental threat due to the burden of toxic chemicals it is proven to contain.

At the end of the meeting, the presenters were asked if, since the Brown Bullhead with lesions are found in environmentally contaminated waters around the world, and if 25-40% of the Bullhead sampled in Memphremagog had visible lesions, that meant that the waters in Lake Memphremagog are environmentally contaminated?

Secretary Moore, Emerson and Levy all agreed that was the case. Further study will continue into what is causing the lesions.

Based on NEWSVT Coventry landfill leachate reports, between January 2015 and November 1, 2019 (when leachate disposal into Newport’s wastewater treatment facility was banned) 21,154,390 gallons of leachate were disposed of in Newport and released in effluent, essentially untreated for PFAS and other Chemicals of Emerging Concern (CECs).

While WWTFs can neutralize bacteria and capture some toxins in sludge, the CECs found in leachate leave the WWTF in effluent, and go right into the Clyde River and on to Memphremagog.

In October 2019, tests for PFAS in Newport’s leachate showed three times the level of PFAS for drinking water in Vermont, exceeded only by Montpelier, which also accepts leachate for disposal.

Even the waste industry is now acknowledging that contamination by leachate is a serious environmental problem that poses a threat to public health and wildlife, and liability concerns for the industry as well.

Given that the ANR has verified that the presence of cancerous fish is an indicator of environmental contamination in Memphremagog, what possible justification can there be for ever allowing the resumption of leachate disposal into Newport’s WWTF?

I should think the City of Newport would also be asking this question, as well as wondering what their liability will be if and when a relationship between fish tumors and CECs in landfill leachate may be found.

I am sure that the 175,000 Quebecois for whom Lake Memphremagog is a drinking water source are wondering, too.

Peggy Stevens
Charleston

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