John R. Jones Sr. stands on the shore of a river so infested with bacteria it's unsafe for him wade into, and casts a fishing line into a current so polluted with mercury and other chemicals that health officials warn against eating his catch.
The Granite City man was recently fishing for catfish, walleye and sauger on Chouteau Island along the Mississippi River, yet state health officials warn against frequently eating all those fish. For example, they suggest Jones only eat one meal of large catfish a month.
Jones said he vaguely knew the warnings against eating the fish, but scoffed at the dangers. "I've been eating fish out of this river since 1965 and it hasn't killed me yet," he said.
The water running past Chouteau Island is only one of the many waterways in the metro-east plagued with environmental and health problems. A federally required report recently completed by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency details a long list of problems for streams and lakes. The local findings include:
* Cautions against eating fish caught at all lakes marketed by the state for fishing.
* Streams and rivers cannot adequately support aquatic life in seven of 10 cases.
* Five sites were contaminated with enough feces to harm humans and pets.
Illinois Environmental Protection Agency manager Gregg Good co-authored the report and said its findings are backed with a host of data collected at sites along local water ways.
"I think the first thing people should take away when you ask 'how is my water?' is that question is totally a function of what do you mean. Is it safe to drink? Can my grandkids eat the fish? Is it safe to swim in?" Good said. "It's not an easy thing to say whether something is good, bad or ugly. A lot of data has to go behind that to make those calls."
For example, the agency determined water discharged from an industrial site flanking Horseshoe Lake in Madison was likely impairing the lake. However, a large landfill within half a mile of the lake was found not to harm the water's quality.
The agency found five sites with unhealthy levels of fecal coliform -- a harbinger of E. coli bacteria and commonly an indicator of feces from grazing animals or sewage runoff within the water. E. coli can cause serious digestive illnesses in people and pets.
"One of the biggest contributors of the problem is ourselves," Good said. "We want to live by streams so we put in homes and sewer systems nearby. That is our own undoing."
The sites are Harding Ditch between Dupo and Millstadt, Wood River just west of East Alton, Cahokia Creek north of Edwardsville, and two sites along the Mississippi River just west of Alton and northeast of Granite City.
Good said the agency's assessment should not necessarily translate into avoiding the water because the tests could be skewed after heavy rainfalls or droughts. The agency uses water samples throughout a five-year period to determine whether it is safe to swim within the water.
Don't eat the fish
High levels of mercury and manmade chemicals in the muscles of fish have caused health officials to issue numerous warnings against eating most fish caught in local lakes and rivers. And new findings have spurred a warning advising pregnant women and children not to eat any predatory fish, such as bass or catfish, caught in the state.
Illinois Department of Public Health officials warn too much mercury within bass, walleye, sauger, saugeye, catfish, muskellunge and northern pike might cause serious damage to the nervous systems of children and developing fetuses. Yet local lakes and rivers stocked with such fish host regular children's fishing derbies.
Popular fishing sites in the area do not have any signs or other warnings cautioning fishermen about eating the fish. Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melanie Arnold said the signage is not required and would be impractical because the warnings fluctuate annually. The warnings are only available on the websites of the state's Department of Public Health and Department of Natural Resources.
The level of mercury in the fish has remained the same, according to state officials, but the warning was issued because new studies found nervous systems can be damaged by even small amounts of mercury.
Along with the mercury warning, other contaminants have caused the state to caution residents against eating too many fish from lakes and rivers in the metro-east.
The most common cause for concern is local water contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls -- manmade chemicals used as insulating fluid for electrical equipment. Fish absorb the chemicals from living in contaminated water and eating contaminated food.
"The advisory program is something you should watch, especially pregnant women," Good said. "If you are a subsistence fisherman, you have to eat but it is an advisory for the public that it is better safe than sorry."
For example, the state health department advises against eating more than one meal of catfish or carp per week caught within Frank Holten State Lakes in East St. Louis. The two lakes at Frank Holten park, Whispering Willow Lake and Grand Marais Lake, have a combined 208 acres of water and are stocked with largemouth bass, bluegill and channel catfish.
Additional advisories against fish consumption include Carlyle Lake, Horseshoe Lake in Madison, Highland Silver Lake, and the Mississippi and Kaskaskia rivers, however The Illinois Department of Natural Resources promotes fishing at all those sites.
Cindy Skrukrud, of the Sierra Club, described the contamination of manmade chemicals as a "legacy issue" because the chemicals take a long time to break down.
"We're doing a much better job not releasing (the chemicals) into the environment," Skrukrud said. "It's still a problem because it is so slow to degrade it persists in the environment."
Skrukrud said the Sierra Club believes the mercury contamination results from the burning of coal at power plants. The club is pushing the use of cleaner energy sources and the use of equipment at power plants to reduce the emission of mercury.
Nothing can live
Nearly 70 percent of sites tested along local streams and rivers found the water could not adequately support aquatic life.
The IEPA found 30 of 44 sites impaired by a variety of sources, most common of which was fertilizer and sewer runoff. The agency makes its determination by comparing the chemistry of the water and collected bugs and fish to other streams in the state.
"One of the big problems in our state is the runoff of phosphorus and nitrogen into rivers and lakes that comes from both agriculture sources and urban runoff, such as people fertilizing their lawn," Skrukrud said. "Naturally, streams and lakes are not designed to receive that much nutrients. ... We've altered the landscape so that we have many more nutrients in runoff than expected in natural conditions."
An example of the wide range of issues facing local streams and rivers can be found in the agency's testing of Richland Creek, which begins south of O'Fallon, runs through residential areas of Belleville and continues past Hecker.
Near Belleville, phosphorus from fertilizer chokes off oxygen within the creek and kills aquatic life. Sewer overflows and urban runoff cripple the creek as it flows southeast of Smithton. Crop production and surface mining further hinder the creek as it nears Hecker, with researchers even finding notable amounts of cyanide within the water.
Frank Holten lakes and Highland Silver Lake were also found to be unable to support aquatic life.
News-Democrat photojournalist Steve Nagy contributed information for this article. Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2501.