Something Fishy: Contaminated Waters Threaten a Lifeline for Low-Income People of Color

By Fuller, Sharon | Colorlines Magazine, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Something Fishy: Contaminated Waters Threaten a Lifeline for Low-Income People of Color


Fuller, Sharon, Colorlines Magazine


Hanging on a wall in my office at the Ma'at Youth Academy is a picture of my father in his early thirties proudly holding a huge striped bass caught on the Richmond shoreline in Butler's Bay. Next to that hangs a photo of my husband beaming with a 33-inch striped bass from Whiskey Slough in the San Joaquin Delta. Finally, there's a shot of my two daughters, arms around each others' necks, proudly displaying a puny little bullhead that got tangled in their line while fishing off the Berkeley pier.

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Our family history is not different from that of many other families of color living in the San Francisco Bay and Delta areas. Personal connections to the rivers, lakes, bay and ocean are an integral part of African-American culture--a culture enriched by childhood memories of catfish fries and gumbo that fed entire neighborhoods along the rivers and bayous of the South. It's not long ago that black families sent their children to the South during the summers to experience the magnificent scent of towering oak trees draped in Spanish moss and the crunching sounds of oyster shells along simple county roads that led to favorite fishing holes.

Unfortunately, a practice so vital to our lives and culture is being threatened.

A report published in 2000 by the San Francisco Estuary Institute concluded that contaminants in several species of bay fish were alarmingly high, confirming an earlier pilot study that indicated the potential hazards of eating fish from the bay. Local advisories warning of such fish contamination in the Northern California region have been emerging for several years. The heavily industrialized shorelines of Richmond, Martinez and Oakland led the San Francisco Regional Water Board's "Top 10" list for the bay's most toxic hot spots. Richmond sites accounted for one-third of the list, and one of the Richmond sites, United Heckathorn, remains an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site.

All fish species showed concentrations of one or more contaminants that were well above safe screening levels determined by the EPA. Fish tissue analysis indicated high concentrations of PCBs, mercury, DDT, dieldrin, chlordane and dioxins.

Mercury is an environmental hazard of particular concern, because it is transformed by bacteria into methylmercury, a much more harmful toxin. People are exposed to more mercury from eating fish, marine mammals and crustaceans than from any other source. In March 2004, a collaboration between the Food and Drug Administration and the EPA resulted in a new advisory that warned women of childbearing age and children about mercury levels and fish consumption. While this advisory acknowledged the importance and the benefits of fish consumption, it declared that nearly all fish contain traces of mercury. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that impairs the nervous system. Fetuses and young children are most sensitive to mercury exposure, which can cause brain and nervous system damage, retardation of development, mental impairment, seizures, abnormal muscle tone and problems in coordination.

Race and Environmental Enforcement

California has some of the strongest environmental laws in the country; the problem lies in enforcement. Race, more than socioeconomics, is the dominant factor in the placement of toxic emitting sites, according to a groundbreaking report published by the United Church of Christ. As such, residents face chronic exposure to environmental hazards and related public health risks. Regulatory agencies do not provide equitable enforcement of environmental laws, forcing communities of color and low-income residents to shoulder the burden of protecting themselves. Recently, it required numerous telephone calls, letters and emails to five different agencies over several months just to obtain a sign alerting residents to the hazards of consuming fish caught in the Richmond Harbor.

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Community members do not have the luxury to wait for enforcement. …

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