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In August, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asked the Community Engagement Core at Oregon State University’s Superfund Research Center to give a fireside chat about mercury to 35 campers at the Pine Meadows Campground which is on the shores of the Cottage Grove Reservoir. This recreational area is about 35 miles southeast of Eugene, and about 10 miles downstream of the abandoned Black Butte mine which was one of the largest mercury mines in the state in operation from the 1880s until the 1960s. Barbara Hudson-Hanley, a public health doctoral student, gave a short talk describing how mercury can move through the environment, bioaccumulate in fish, and affect human health and then led the campers through two activities.
The first activity illustrated bioaccumulation. Using pink and yellow cards, campers were assigned different roles. Children under 5 years old were “the microbes” and were tasked with gathering as many pieces as paper as they could in 30 seconds. Slightly older children were the “small fish” and could either “eat the microbes” by taking the younger children’s colored paper or pick up more cards from the ground. Teenagers and adults were the “big fish” and could “eat the small fish”. Throughout the game, the colored pieces of paper were counted. With yellow pieces of paper representing mercury, the data showed that on average microbes picked up 2 yellow and 10 pink cards, the small fish picked up 5 yellow and 20 pink cards, and the big fish had 10 yellow and 25 pink cards. Since fishing is fun and eating fish low in mercury is good for you, the next activity helped people learn about the different fish species in the Cottage Grove Reservoir and their potential to contain mercury. Children were given small fishing poles and were encouraged to “catch” laminated cut-outs of resident fish that spend their entire lives in Cottage Grove Reservoir, such as the Northern Pikeminnow and Catfish, and migratory fish, such as salmon and steelhead. With their siblings and parent’s help, they were tasked with identifying their fish against a poster that had the different types of fish and their average mercury levels and determining if they should eat that fish or not.
These activities provided useful information to campers that reinforced the concepts that recreational activities like fishing are fun and that eating fish is good for you, but that it is important to be aware of you environment and potential hazards so that you can reduce your exposure to potentially harmful pollutants like mercury. The feedback we received from the fireside chat was overwhelmingly positive. Several campers lingered afterwards to talk to Christy Johnson, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discuss more about how mercury got into the Cottage Grove Reservoir and what policy actions have been taken to clean up the abandoned mine.
For more information, please see the “Black Butte Mine Video” and “Mercury, The Community, and Me” a project that was developed by OSU Superfund Research Center as part of the EPA Partners in Technical Assistance Program (PTAP). Learn more https://superfund.oregonstate.edu/mercury