RANTOUL – Uncle Sam says it's OK to bring your fishing pole back to Heritage Lake.
Air Force Real Property Agency Environmental Coordinator Paul Carroll announced Thursday that the Air Force has removed restrictions on fishing at the manmade lake, located on the southeast side of the former Chanute Air Force Base.
The Air Force had posted signs around Heritage Lake in 2001 limiting fishing at the site to "catch and release."
The signs were posted after environmental investigators discovered an elevated amount of mercury in largemouth bass caught at the lake in 2001.
Chris Hill, environmental protection engineer for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, said the ingestion of mercury can cause medical problems for pregnant women and the children they bear.
The EPA's Web site lists neurological disorders, cerebral palsy and learning disorders among the most common problems caused by ingesting mercury.
Stephen Fain, an engineer for Air Force contractor URS (based in Austin, Texas), said that an analysis of fish of edible size no longer detects elevated levels of mercury.
Fain said that surface water and sediment samples were taken at 13 locations around the lake, and tissue samples were taken from three different species of Heritage Lake fish.
While traces of arsenic were found in one largemouth bass caught by the engineers, Fain estimated the risk of getting cancer by eating fish from the lake is between one in 100,000 and one in a million.
"Given the difficulty we had in obtaining edible-size fish samples, it is likely this risk is overestimated," Fain said.
As a result, Carroll said the fishing restriction signs were all removed from the lake in late April.
While the Air Force restrictions have been removed, Fain noted that Illinois continues to have a statewide advisory warning of possible mercury contamination of predator fish in all water bodies in the state.
But Chanute Restoration Advisory Board member Doug Rokke said he remains concerned that contamination from nearby landfills could affect the lake.
"The water below the surface flows like mad when we get a heavy rain," said Rokke, a retired major in the Army Reserve who served on medical teams from Vietnam to the first Gulf War. "If we get horizontal transfer of water below the landfill cap, it is going to go into the lake."
Rokke recommended that the Air Force conduct an additional water quality analysis of the lake.
Heritage Lake is one of three sites being proposed by the Air Force for no additional environmental work.
The second location is 1.4 acres west of Titan Drive and east of the lake. The site housed a hazardous materials acid storage facility from 1966 to 1985.
While traces of arsenic were found there, Fain said the substance was probably caused by the use of pesticide by farmers prior to Air Force operations at Chanute.
The final site includes 0.7 acres west of Titan Drive and south of Heritage Drive. The Air Force operated a fuel storage building there from 1966 to 1985, but the area is currently covered with grassy vegetation.
While traces of benzopyrene and iron were discovered on the site, Fain said the concentrations were similar to that found at non-military sites in the Rantoul area.
Carroll said the Air Force will be accepting written public comments through June 18 on the proposal to do no more environmental work at the three locations.
Send written comments to Paul Carroll, 9801 Reese Blvd. North, Suite 300, Lubbock, TX 79416.