Thursday, August 18, 2011

Hoh River Trail and Mercury in Fish

   I went backpacking up the Hoh River Trail earlier this week. We made it 14.8 miles up to Martin Creek -- quite a bit further than I had been previously. The weather was beautiful and, other than deciding to hike all the way out on the third day rather than stay one more night as originally planned (not the best decision), it was a near-perfect trip.

   There were an unusual number of people on the trail. While the Hoh River Trail is one of the more traveled trails in the park, this week there were even more hikers than usual. We stopped and spoke with one of the rangers at the Olympic Ranger Station along the trail and he commented on the high level of traffic. It's no surprise, the weather was still cold and wet right up until August. The ranger said that he didn't recommend climbers try to make the climb up Mt. Olympus (the end of the Hoh River Trail) this year as the snow still obscured the route. Even those familiar with the area were having difficulty staying to the "path".

   Another interesting thing I discovered at the Olympus Ranger Station was a sign posted with fishing information. At the bottom of the sign was a warning that fish from the Hoh River have been found to contain high levels of mercury. It got me thinking, how do fish in a river sourced solely from snow and ice in a National Park of over 900,000 acres become contaminated to the degree of needing a warning posted?

   I understand that pollution in the air travels into the park and that fish have the ability to swim beyond the borders of the park and then back upstream. But the park takes up much of the Olympic Peninsula and is surrounded by a very small population (probably the largest town around the park would be Port Angeles, with a population of around 19,000), an ocean, and the Puget Sound. It seems like it should be safely isolated. Granted, it is surrounded by National Forest areas where much industrial logging takes place, but the water is flowing out from the park, not into it.

   So I got online when I got home. From Wikipedia:

"Much of the mercury that eventually finds its way into fish originates with coal-burning power plants and chlorine production plants. The largest source of mercury contamination in the United States is coal-fueled power plant emissions. Chlorine chemical plants use mercury to extract chlorine from salt, which in many parts of the world is discharged as mercury compounds in waste water, though this process has been replaced for the most part by the more economically viable membrane cell process, which does not use mercury. Coal contains mercury as a natural contaminant. When it is fired for electricity generation, the mercury is released as smoke into the atmosphere. Most of this mercury pollution can be eliminated if pollution-control devices are installed."

   Here's my point, the Olympic National Park is one of the largest National Parks (the eighth largest, not counting Alaska's Parks) and it is situated in a relatively isolated corner of the U.S. It should be one of the cleanest places on earth and still, it isn't safe to eat the fish.

   What the hell are we doing?

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