Nearly a million fish are dying annually, and thousands of others are being deformed, by coal ash in Sutton Lake outside Wilmington, North Carolina, according to a new study.
The source is four coal ash waste pits at a power plant owned and operated by Duke Energy, said Dennis Lemly, a research associate professor of biology at Wake Forest University, and a leading expert on selenium poisoning. Four conservation groups on December 3 called for immediate action from Duke Energy.
Lemly and his team analyzed more than 1,400 fish from Sutton Lake “and found several species of fish showing disturbing mutations of the heads, mouths, spines, and tails,” the groups said in their statement. “Many fish die before reaching maturity. In addition, the study found the population of catchable bass has dropped by 50 percent since 2008, affecting the popular bass fishing economy at the lake.”
Sutton Lake is known for its commercial fishery, its public recreational fishing and as a source of food to subsistence fishers who live nearby. The new findings underscore the urgency of solidifying regulations on coal ash, the four groups said. The joint statement from the Sierra Club, Southern Environmental Law Center, the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Cape Fear River Watch called for immediate action from Duke Energy.
“Selenium pollution from Duke’s coal ash takes food off the table of North Carolinians who count on Sutton Lake to feed their families, and fish off fishermen’s lines,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, in the groups’ statement.
Duke Energy is the parent company of Duke Energy Renewables Inc., which pleaded guilty earlier this month to killing eagles with its wind turbines in Wyoming.
The coal ash battle is being fought nationwide. At the end of October, a federal judge gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 60 days to set federal coal ash regulations in a lawsuit against the agency involving, among other parties, the Moapa Band of Paiutes. That deadline is still weeks away, but it deals with emissions under the Clean Air Act, not water or ground pollution.
Selenium, one of the contaminants in coal ash, is suspected in other fish deformities, most famously the two-headed trout caught near the J.R. Simplot plant in Idaho.
Coal ash contamination in drinking water in North Carolina is not new. In 2012 researchers at Duke University in Durham analyzed more than 300 water samples from 11 lakes and rivers and found high levels of selenium in waters flowing to places like Mountain Island Lake, one of the main sources of drinking water for Charlotte.
“In several cases, we found contamination levels that far exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for safe drinking water and aquatic life,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, in an October 15, 2012, statement from the university.
“We are saving the sky by putting in more scrubbers to remove particulates from power plant emissions,” he said. “But these contaminants don’t just disappear. As our study shows, they remain in high concentrations in the solid waste residue and wastewater the coal-fired power plants produce. Yet there are no systematic monitoring or regulations to reduce water-quality impacts from coal ash ponds because coal ash is not considered as hazardous waste.”
The current study links these contaminant levels to fish health, further fueling the anti-coal-plant fire.
“Conservation advocates have uncovered shocking evidence of water pollution from Duke Energy’s coal ash pits in Asheville, and now this new study shows how the same thing is happening in Wilmington,” said Kelly Martin, with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, in the conservation groups’ December 3 statement. “We know coal ash pollution harms people, wildlife, and our treasured natural places. Duke Energy needs to stop stalling and take responsibility for its ongoing violations.”