ALSEN, LA (WAFB) - State agencies said Thursday that people should not eat fish or crawfish from the Devil's Swamp and Bayou Baton Rouge area in East Baton Rouge Parish. They should also avoid swimming, fishing, or boating in the water.
The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH), Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) said a recent study of fish and shellfish tissues revealed high levels of PCB and mercury in the water that could be dangerous to human health.
"It's not safe to be exposed to this for long lengths of time," said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, a state health officer with the DHH.
Under a previous advisory introduced in 1993, residents were told to eat no more than two meals per month that included fish from the area. Since then, the DHH has reduced what levels of PCB are considered safe.
"Don't even take any risk. Don't even eat the fish or crawfish from this lake," Guidry said.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the PCB comes from a nearby hazardous waste site, originally opened in 1971 and operated by Rollins Environmental Services.
According to Daniel Schuler of Nave Environmental, who oversaw a recent test of the water, waste water from the plant was moved into a drainage ditch. From there, some of the PCB seeped into the swamp.
The mercury came from a variety of nearby sources.
Devil's Bayou is located in Alsen, which is southwest of Baker on Scenic Hwy. Devil's Swamp is a wetland, flood plain and lake covering approximately 12 square miles of land along the Mississippi River. The swamp to the north of the lake is characterized by numerous small open ponds and water tupelo trees.
Approximately 1,598 people live within two miles of the water. For people in the nearby Alsen community, the news is not considered shocking.
"I have not eaten fish from the Devil's Swamp in years," said Kathryn Jones, indicating she would rather be safe than sorry.
Back in the 1960s, many protested when Rollins considered installing their plant, saying it would be a threat to the environment and their livelihood.
"Only thing I can say is I told you so," said Lafayette Harrison, a local resident who has lived near the swamp for most of his life.
They said that before the Rollins plant was constructed, Devil's Swamp was a place to spend time with family and friends.
"People would go back there and fish, be comfortable, they would hunt, have a good time," said Alice Cage. "But now, it's terrible."
"It's like we're a cesspool for all of the garbage that they don't want," said Harrison, referring to other parts of the parish. He believes that state and local agencies need to protect the environment around Alsen.
They said they would like to see the plants closed and cleaned up.
The study leading to Thursday's announcement involved testing largemouth bass, channel catfish, crappie, bluegill and crawfish from the area, which is bounded on the north by Hall Buck Marine Road, on the east by the bluffs and Baton Rouge Barge Harbor, and on the south and west by the Mississippi River.
The fish were also tested for hexachlorobenzene (HCB), hexachlorobutadiene (HCBD), arsenic and lead. Results were negative or below health-based screening values for HCB, HCBD and arsenic, while trace levels of lead were detected in some species.
The water waste facility is now owned by Clean Harbors, Inc., which said it has completed a state-ordered clean-up of the ditch. The organization now must work with the EPA to perform a study about the possibility of cleaning up the swamp and bayou.
Meanwhile, the EPA Remedial Program will continue with the investigation of the Devil's Swamp Lake Superfund Site.
Local fishers or community members should contact DHH at 1-888-293-7020 with any questions.