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Don't drink the water, but you can eat the fish

Thursday, May 16, 2002

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Correction/Clarification (Published May 17, 2002): A quotation at the end of this story in May 16, 2002 editions on fishing and river pollution appeared to come from county Health Department spokesman Guillermo Cole. It did not. It came from fisherman Dave Immonen of Franklin Park, who said he wasn't sure he was ready to eat anything that was caught at the Point.

A dozen fishermen -- a few sporting suits and ties -- spent their lunch hours yesterday catching fish in the sewage brown rivers roiling past the Point Downtown.

Sean Brady of the Western Pennsylvania Field Institute untangles fishing lines for a free lunchtime fishing group, the Downtown TriAnglers, at Point State Park yesterday. The institute is sponsoring a weekly fishing get-together with local fishing pro Karen Gainey. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

They were participating in the first of the Western Pennsylvania Field Institute's weekly "TriAnglers" fishing events. It just happened to coincide with the first of the Allegheny County Health Department's seasonal "River Water Advisories," warning folks to limit their contact with river water on days when sewage pollution is at unhealthy levels.

The contrasts were sharper than the hooks they were using.

Despite water the color of a Starbucks latte, the anglers pulled a variety of fish -- carp, catfish, sauger, rock bass, blue gill and sheepshead -- out of an eddy that formed where the fast-moving Monongahela River met the faster moving Allegheny River.

At the same time, over at the Carnegie Science Center on the North Side, the orange and black "CSO" flag designating a Combined Sewer Overflow day was run up the flagpole at the Pittsburgh Voyager dock, one of 44 river facilities flying the advisory colors this season.

Sean Brady, Field Institute program director, could see the irony of catching game fish and promoting outdoor recreation within sight of a flag announcing water quality problems caused by sewer outlets that discharge untreated sewage during and after rainstorms.

"I've seen some of those numbers, the millions of gallons of sewage dumping into the rivers, and it's kind of shocking, but I'm not sure it affects the fish at all," Brady said. "I could take a mouthful of water out of the river today and swish it around in my mouth. I'm handling fish all the time and have their slime on my hands, but I don't consider it a risk.

"Unless you're drinking it, I don't think what's in the water is so virulent that you're going to get sick from contact."

He said testing by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has shown that bottom-feeding carp and catfish have picked up industrial chemicals from the river silt and shouldn't be eaten, but smallmouth bass, walleye and sauger are safe to consume in limited quantities.

No tests have shown that the fish are unsafe to eat because of the sewage pollution.

John Brady, Sean's father and one of the suited fishermen who had a license pinned to his tie, said he's been fishing the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers around Pittsburgh 60 to 70 days a year for 30 years and eating the fish he catches three times a week to little ill effect.

"Many of the good fishing places are actually where the sewers dump out," he said. "I've been fishing where I've seen guys actually get little pieces of toilet paper caught on their hooks."

Some of the bottom-feeding fish -- carp and catfish -- seem to thrive in the organic sewage pollution, while other species -- game fish like smallmouth bass, walleye and sauger -- are able to tolerate the periodic overflows, which have made Pittsburgh's rivers unsafe for swimming, water skiing and boating on one out of every two days over the last two summers.

Guillermo Cole, a Health Department spokesman, said the advisories, now starting their eighth season, don't prohibit recreational activity on the rivers, but rather caution those with open cuts or sores or weakened immune systems to limit their contact with water from them.

Said fisherman Dave Immonen of Franklin Park: "I've heard the rivers are a lot cleaner now than they were, but I'm not convinced I'd take any of these fish home to eat."

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