Amidst warnings that a tiny, fish-killing microbe is the "canary in the coal mine" warning about problems in the Bay and nearby coastal areas, governors from six states have agreed to act together in combating future outbreaks of pfiesteria.
Their meeting was the latest sign of how the tiny microbe, which can only be identified by experts using special high-powered microscopes, has moved into the environmental spotlight.
At a Sept. 19 meeting of the governors of four states, and senior representatives from two others, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening said the microbe is warning of wider environmental problems just like the canaries carried by miners into the shaft to alert them of gas leaks.
"The canary is dying," he said. "We've got to do something about it."
EPA Administrator Carol Browner, who also attended the meeting and pledged federal support, said the presence of the organism in numerous Bay waterways is a "clarion call" for additional nutrient reductions. She said excess nutrients were causing a "host of problems" in the Bay and other waterways throughout the country.
The meeting was also attended by Gov. George Allen of Virginia, Gov. Tom Carper of Delaware, and Governor Cecil Underwood of West Virginia. Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and Gov. Jim Hunt of North Carolina sent representatives.
They signed an agreement pledging to work closely together to protect public health and the environment from any future pfiesteria outbreaks through the timely exchange of information, the establishment of a "technical team" to study pfiesteria control efforts, and by seeking coordinated federal assistance in responding to pfiesteria problems.
The meeting was the culmination of growing concern that began last fall when watermen began reporting fish with ugly lesions in the Pocomoke River on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Pfiesteria-or a closely related species-is blamed for two August fish kills involving a total of between 10,000 and 20,000 fish in the river. Maryland has closed parts of the Pocomoke, as well as two other nearby waterways-the Chicamacomico River and Kings Creek, a tributary of the Manokin River-where large numbers of sick fish have also been seen.
Pfiesteria has also been suspected of causing lesions in Virginia's Rappahannock and Great Wicomico rivers.
Researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science suspect pfiesteria may explain lesions which have shown up during routine fall surveys since 1984. And Delaware officials believe pfiesteria may explain a major fish kill which occurred on the Indian River in 1987.
Discovered by North Carolina State University Researcher JoAnn Burkholder and her colleagues in 1988, pfiesteria is blamed for fish kills involving more than 1 billion fish in recent years near the mouth of North Carolina's Neuse River.
Meanwhile, evidence continued to grow that pfiesteria was causing health problems in humans who came in close contact with water during a fish-kill episode, according to a report by team of physicians from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University after examining a group of Eastern Shore watermen. Dr. Martin P. Wasserman, state secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene, said the findings affirm the state's decision to close three Eastern Shore rivers where fish kills and lesions were discovered.
Health problems most often occur in people who have daily skin exposure to water where pfiesteria toxins have been detected, Wasserman said. People who sometimes swim or boat in rivers where toxins have been detected may suffer milder forms of the same symptoms. "We're only looking at the more extreme end of the spectrum," he said.
Symptoms most often reported include memory loss and the inability to concentrate or remember simple things. Those symptoms seem to abate with time, though it's not clear how long, said Dr. J. Glenn Morris of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The only known treatment is a series of mental exercises to improve the memory and concentration, Morris said.
Pfiesteria is blamed for making about two dozen people sick in the state, including some state workers monitoring the fish kills.
In other recent developments:
- Scientists at Baltimore's Christopher Columbus Center announced plans to launch a crash program aimed at combating pfiesteria, hoping to equip three laboratories at the research center to safely handle the microbe.
- Virginia Gov. George Allen made $800,000 available Sept. 17 for increased pfiesteria research. He transferred $600,000 from the state's economic contingency fund to the state Health Department to create a pfiesteria epidemiology research unit, and designated another $200,000 to purchase a new scanning electron microscope and to train researchers working on the suspected pfiesteria outbreak. Allen also said he would ask the 1998 General Assembly for another $1.5 million for increased testing, monitoring and research on the microbe.
- North Carolina State University announced plans Sept. 18 to build a $1 million research center devoted exclusively to pfiesteria. North Carolina health authorities have been criticized for not aggressively reviewing the human health threats of the microbe. Burkholder, the NCSU scientist who helped discover pfiesteria and who is one of the state's most high-profile critics, said she met with Gov. Jim Hunt to discuss the research center, and described him as "very frustrated about the situation," she said. "He doesn't take easily to having to follow other states for guidance." Burkholder said she welcomes more resources for her work, but still questions why help didn't come sooner. "The Chesapeake Bay is putting a center like this together after losing [20,000] fish," Burkholder said. "We lost more than 1 billion fish in 1991 alone."
- The U.S. House voted Sept. 12 to set aside $7 million for the Centers for Disease Control to research health problems associated with exposure to pfiesteria when it is in its toxic stage.
- Glendening has appointed a special blue-ribbon commission, headed by former Gov. Harry Hughes, to study the pfiesteria problem and report by Nov. 1 actions that should be taken to reduce the potential for future outbreaks.
- Glendening approved an emergency $2 million appropriation to help farmers plant winter cover crops which help absorb excess nutrients left on the fields.
- Maryland and federal officials plan to quickly upgrade sewage facilities on the lower Eastern Shore in response to concerns about pollutants possibly contributing to lesions on fish and fish kills. Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes lined up $2 million in federal grants in August to help upgrade the two largest plants on the Pocomoke, at Pocomoke and Snow Hill.
- A congressional panel was set to hold a hearings Sept. 25 to probe federal and state governments' responses to pfiesteria outbreaks.
- The Associated Press contributed to this report