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Mercury widespread in Chesapeake Bay headwaters fish

Nearly half of all gamefish in freshwater lakes, streams and rivers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed may be unsafe to eat because of high levels of mercury, a new study suggests.

In the first study to examine mercury across a spectrum of fish in the six-state region, scientists found that the pollutant remains prevalent in the environment in its most toxic form despite years of declining mercury emissions.

The totals vary widely by location, a possible indication that local conditions are raising or lowering the risk of contamination, according to the research conducted by three U.S. Geological Survey scientists.

“Our goal here was to really do a first cut of what we saw across the landscape,” said Collin Eagles-Smith, a USGS research ecologist. “Hopefully, that can be a springboard for future studies to get a better sense of why.”

The study centers on the type of mercury that is most toxic to humans: methylmercury. The neurotoxin is formed when inorganic mercury interacts with certain bacteria. It is particularly harmful to fetuses and children, potentially leading to intellectual deficits and problems with motor skills.

In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, mercury is the main trigger for fish-consumption advisories. Coal-fired power plants and trash incinerators are the largest sources of the pollutant in the region, scientists say. Once released into the air, mercury can travel great distances before getting deposited into waterways through rainfall or as a gas.

The Chesapeake watershed’s mercury levels — with 45% of all fish in the study exceeding the consumption standard — are similar to those found in many parts of the country, the authors say. The findings underscore the importance of checking for public health advisories before eating any wild-caught fish, said James Willacker, the study’s lead author.

“I would pay attention to your public health officials and be as informed as you can about the information they’re providing,” he said.

The USGS researchers culled fish contamination records from two sources: a 2013-17 study conducted by the agency in the watershed, and state monitoring programs with reporting dating as far back as 1990.

Together, the collections contained measurements from nearly 8,000 fish caught in 600 locations.

The researchers found that the basin with the highest mercury concentrations was the Susquehanna. More than half of the basin’s freshwater areas ranked among the most toxic spots across the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which stretches from Virginia Beach, Va., to Cooperstown, N.Y.

Next was the Potomac, where 18% of waters landed in that tier. No water body outside of the Potomac and Susquehanna drainage areas fell into the most-polluted category. In contrast, at least half of the water bodies in the James, Rappahannock and York watersheds — all in Virginia — placed in the category with the lowest levels.

Eagles-Smith said it’s unclear why the watersheds in the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay basin have higher mercury levels in fish than those in the south. Regional air patterns would suggest the opposite — mercury tumbles from the atmosphere to the ground at higher rates in the South than in the North, according to the study.

Because methylmercury levels intensify with each step up the food chain, the USGS scientists found the highest amounts in larger fish, including some of the region’s most prized sportfish.

Striped bass, a gamefish popular on restaurant menus, had the most mercury in its meat of the 32 fish tracked in the study, with a typical concentration of 0.31 parts per million. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a consumption limit for mercury of 0.3 parts per million.

“There are lots of people out there recreationally consuming that” fish, said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “These people don’t realize what they’re ingesting and how much of a detrimental impact that can have.”

Striped bass was followed, from more contaminated to less, by bowfin (0.2), walleye (0.19), largemouth bass (0.18) and flathead catfish (0.17), according to the report. The creek chub and three types of trout were among the species with the least mercury.

“Trout are a great choice if you’re trying to avoid mercury exposure,” Eagles-Smith said.

James Smith and his 11-year-old son go fishing two or three times a week around the interior of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. About once a week, the Wicomico County residents take home what they catch and eat it — usually white perch or catfish.

Smith said he isn’t too concerned about whether those fish might contain mercury. “The government’s not making a big issue about the tuna, and the tuna is at the top of the food chain,” he said, adding that he feels safe taking fish from his favorite spot, the Pocomoke River, because it has little industry along its banks.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element, but its burden in the environment has by some measures tripled since the Industrial Revolution. Levels of industrial emissions have been falling dramatically in the United States over the past three decades, largely because of pollution controls being implemented at power plants and the closure of others.

The Trump administration has moved to relax an Obama-era mercury emission regulation at such plants, citing its cost. The regulation remains on the books, but the change — which removed the legal reasoning behind it — opens the protection to potential legal attacks, critics say.

The USGS paper was published in March in the scientific journal Ecotoxicology.

Greg Allen, a scientist with the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office said the program remains in “looking and watching mode” when it comes to the contaminant.

“We expect the loads and concentrations in the fish to be coming down,” Allen added. “So, we intend to stand by and monitor. If that is the trend, then we can work on other pollutants.”

Jeremy Cox is a Bay Journal staff writer who can be reached at

Judge extends hospitalization of truck attack plot suspect

A federal judge has extended the court-ordered hospitalization of a Maryland man deemed mentally unfit for trial on charges he planned an Islamic State-inspired attack at a shopping and entertainment complex near Washington, D.C.

U.S. District Judge Paula Xinis said in a court filing June 30 that the COVID-19 pandemic has hindered the ability of federal Bureau of Prisons medical staff to evaluate the defendant, Rondell Henry.

Henry, 29, of Germantown, is charged with attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, the Islamic State group.

Police arrested Henry in March 2019 after seeing him exit a stolen U-Haul van and jump over a security fence at National Harbor.

Henry told investigators he planned to carry out an attack like one in which a driver ran over and killed dozens of people in Nice, France, in 2016, authorities said.

In February, Xinis ruled there was ample evidence that Henry isn’t mentally competent to stand trial. She ordered him to be held in a “suitable” federal Bureau of Prisons facility for up to four months so experts can determine whether he could be competent to be tried in the future.

Henry was supposed to be taken to the federal medical facility in Butner, N.C., for treatment. On Tuesday, however, the judge said the pandemic also has hampered the U.S. Marshal Service’s ability to transport him. She extended Henry’s court-ordered hospitalization for up to four more months, giving prison officials more time to “initiate formal competency restoration procedures.”

During a hearing last year, a federal prosecutor said Henry intended to kill as many “disbelievers” as possible.

Prosecutors have said Henry watched Islamic State group propaganda videos of foreign terrorists beheading civilians and fighting overseas. Investigators said they recovered a phone Henry had discarded on a highway in an apparent attempt to conceal evidence, including images of the Islamic State flag, armed Islamic State fighters and the man who carried out the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Fla.

Henry is a naturalized U.S. citizen who moved to the country from Trinidad and Tobago more than a decade ago.

The terrorism charge that he faces is punishable by a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Henry also faces a stolen vehicle charge that carries a maximum of 10 years in prison.

Bowie horses impacted Maryland-bred Hall of Fame

Since the inception of the Maryland-bred Hall of Fame for thoroughbreds was unveiled in 2013, several horses that raced at Bowie Race Course have been inducted. Among the 10 finalists this year, of which two will be inducted, three horses made at least one start at Bowie and two of them won the famed Marlboro Nursery Stakes there.

Among the 10 finalists, Heavenly Cause, Star de Naskra and What a Summer each made at least one start at Bowie and each of them recorded at least one victory over the oval. Star de Naskra captured the Marlboro Nursery — which had previously been run at Marlboro Race Track for 50 years — in 1977 and Heavenly Cause won the Marlboro Nursery Stakes at Bowie three years later.

Star de Naskra actually won the first two starts of his career at Bowie in the summer of 1977 then returned that fall to capture the Marlboro Nursery. In all, the Naskra stallion would win five of his eight outings at Bowie and the Richard Ferris trainee also took home the Eclipse Award for champion sprinter in 1979 before being retired.

Heavenly Cause, who concluded her career with a 9-4-2 slate and nearly $675,000 banked from 21 lifetime outings, prevailed in her career debut at Belmont Park on July 23, 1980 then won the Marlboro Nursery at Bowie six weeks later. Trained by Hall of Fame conditioner Woody Stephens, Heavenly Cause won the Eclipse Award winner as champion three-year-old filly.

Coincidentally, the late Stephens trained three horses that are finalists for the 2020 class of Maryland-bred Hall of Fame inductees. In addition to Heavenly Cause he also saddled Devil’s Bag, the champion two-year-old male of 1983 and Caveat, the 1983 Belmont Stakes winner. Coincidentally, both also made one start at Laurel Park during their respective careers.

What a Summer, a What Luck mare trained by Hall of Fame conditioner LeRoy Jolley, won her only start at Bowie on October 21, 1976 and then captured the Eclipse Award as champion sprinter the following year. What a Summer concluded her career with an 18-6-3 slate and earnings of nearly $480,000 from 31 starts and there is a stakes races named for her each winter at Laurel.

It is quite possible that one or two of the three previously mentioned runners could get inducted into the Maryland-bred Hall of Fame when the results of the voting are announced later this month, but they will not be the first horses to have made at least one start at Bowie to be so honored. Heavenly Cause and Star de Naskra, however, would be the first ones linked to Bowie and Marlboro.

In fact, three members of the inaugural class in 2013, Jameela, Vertex and Twixt all had all won at least one stakes at Bowie during their careers. Jameela, who won 27 of 58 career outings and earned just over $1 million, actually won all seven of her starts at Bowie. She won all six of her starts at Bowie in 1980 and earlier won the Dogwood Stakes the year before.

Twixt concluded her career with a 25-14-11 and earned over $620,000 from 70 career tries. She won twice in four starts at Bowie, taking the Grade III Barbara Fritchie Stakes in 1974 and 1975. Vertex prevailed 17 times in 25 lifetime outings and earned $450,000, winning the John B. Campbell Handicap at Bowie in 1959.

One of the more recent Maryland-bred Hall of Fame inductees, Dave’s Friend, who traveled across the country to compete in numerous sprint stakes, won three times and finished second three times in six outings at Bowie. He captured the Chesapeake Handicap in 1978 then later won the Southern Maryland Handicap in 1980 and again in 1981.

During a career marked by consistency and durability, Hall of Fame inductee Little Bold John spent all of his mornings at the Bowie Training Center in trainer John (Jerry) Robb’s barn. The John Alden gelding ventured across the country to compete in numerous lucrative stakes, including one Breeders Cup, recording 38 wins and nearly $2 million banked from 105 lifetime outings.

“He was just unlucky in a couple of his starts at Bowie,” Robb said. “But he never missed a day going to the track to gallop. He was talented and he was durable. I never expected to have a horse like him and I’ll probably never have another one like him.”

While Little Bold John spent his mornings at Bowie for over a decade, he made only four starts over the track before it closed and failed to win any of them. He finished second once, third once and fourth twice in those four outings. Although he hardly possessed a home course advantage at Bowie, Little Bold John won at least one race at eight other tracks in six different states.

“He knew when it was time to race,” Robb said. “It didn’t matter whether it was a race on the turf or dirt or during the day or at night, he was always ready on race days. A lot of really good horses trained at Bowie while he was there, but I think people always associated Bowie with him.”

Twitter: @tblackspts

Prince George's police officer indicted

A suspended Prince George’s Police Department officer was indicted by a grand jury last week for allegedly providing confidential case information to a commercial sex worker.

Cpl. Ivan Mendez, 34, faces one count of misconduct in office.

According to a PGPD news release, Mendez allegedly provided confidential information to a commercial sex worker whom he was paying in exchange for sexual acts. The information he provided focused on an on-going police investigation.

The release stated that the PGPD was first made aware of the allegations against Mendez on April 1, 2019. He was suspended on April 3, 2019. The alleged incident occurred Dec. 31, 2018, according to online case records.

The Prince George’s Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division brought its investigation to the State’s Attorney’s Office for consideration of criminal charges.

“It is important for the community to know that once a fellow officer was made aware of the allegations against Mendez, the Internal Affairs Division was immediately notified. The officer’s police powers were then suspended and he remains suspended. We then brought our investigation to the State’s Attorney Office for consideration of charges. All allegations of criminal misconduct by our officers are taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. Officers who break the law have no place in this agency,” PGPD Interim Police Chief Hector Velez stated in the release.

Mendez joined the PGPD in 2009 and was assigned to the Bureau of Investigation prior to his suspension.

Mendez has an initial arraignment in circuit court scheduled for July 31 according to online case records.

Twitter: @JamieACIndyNews

July 4 shooting leaves one dead

Prince George’s Police Department homicide detectives are investigating a fatal shooting that occurred in Temple Hills on Saturday night leaving one man, John Dennis Watts V, 24, of Baltimore dead and three others injured.

According to police reports, at approximately 9:30 p.m. on July 4, officers responded to Dallas Place for a reported shooting. When officers arrived on the scene, they located the victim suffering from multiple gunshot wounds. He was transported to a local hospital and was pronounced dead a short time later.

According to the police report, three additional people were also shot during this incident. They suffered what appear to be non-life-threatening injuries.

Preliminarily, detectives do not believe this to be a random act of crime, according to the report.

Detectives are working to establish motive and identify suspect(s).

Anyone with information on this case is asked to call 301-516-2512. Callers wishing to remain anonymous may call Crime Solvers at 1-866-411-TIPS (8477), or go online at, or use the “P3 Tips” mobile app (search “P3 Tips” in the Apple Store or Google Play to download the app onto your mobile device.) Please refer to case 20-0031968.

Twitter: @JamieACIndyNews

Col. Tyler Schaff, 316th Wing and Joint Base Andrews commander, passes the 316th Mission Support Group guidon to Col. Nichole Scott, 316th MSG commander, during an assumption of command ceremony at Andrews on July 2. An assumption of command is a military tradition that represents a formal transfer of authority and responsibility for a unit to a commanding officer.

“Thank you for giving me an opportunity to lead this fantastic group,” said Scott. “I’m absolutely ready and my career has prepared me for times like this. I look forward to what the next two years will bring us.”