Sutton Case Study: Coal Ash Harms and Kills Fish

Guest Blog | December 19, 2013 | Coal, Energy Policy
The curved spine of this mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis) is caused by selenium leaking from Duke Energy's coal ash impoundments at Lake Sutton.

A new study released on December 3, 2013, shows that toxic coal ash from Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton Power Station is seriously harming fish and wildlife in Lake Sutton, a popular fishing destination near Wilmington, NC. Unfortunately, this is just the most recent addition to the growing body of evidence that coal ash is leaking into Southeastern waterways, threatening human health and wildlife. The alleged contamination in this case, flows from 135 acres of unlined impoundments containing at least 744 million gallons of coal ash slurry which contain concentrated amounts of toxic heavy metals such as selenium, arsenic, lead, mercury and many others. The impoundments sit on the lip of Sutton Lake, held back by a 32 foot dam.

Dr. Dennis Lemly, Research Associate Professor of Biology at Wake Forest University and a leading expert on selenium poisoning conducted the study; showing that selenium and other toxics from Duke Energy’s coal ash are killing more than 900,000 fish and deforming thousands more each year in Lake Sutton. Dr. Lemly estimated annual fish mortality from selenium poisoning by applying the percentage of fish caught that had life-threatening deformities to the total estimated population of fish in the lake.

Dr. Lemly physically analyzed more than 1,400 fish from the lake and found 149 different species of fish with disturbing mutations of the head, mouth, spine and tail. The mutations, considered physical markers of selenium poisoning[according to who? can you link something here?], make it difficult for fish to survive to adulthood since they can’t eat or swim properly. The study also noted that the lake’s population of catchable bass decreased by 50 percent over the last five years, which could mean an annual loss of $1 million or more for the local economy.

Of course, these same toxics also cause health problems in humans who eat contaminated fish or drink contaminated water. Health effects of selenium, arsenic, and other toxic heavy metals found in coal ash range from eye and skin irritations to cancer and developmental defects. Unfortunately, the public who recreate and fish on Lake Sutton are not properly informed of potential contamination there.

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission manages Lake Sutton as a public fishery and encourages fishing by constructing boat ramps and docks on the lake. However, for the purposes of Duke’s water pollution permits for the L.V. Sutton Power Station, the lake is considered a cooling pond and as such the utility is not required to assess fish populations or monitor overall water quality in the reservoir and the lake does not have to comply with state water-quality standards.

We hope the findings of this study will spur Duke Energy to follow the example of their counterparts in South Carolina by ending the dangerous and obsolete practice of wet coal ash storage, even in the absence of regulations requiring them to do so. Conservation groups and the State of North Carolina are currently suing Duke Energy for violating the Federal Clean Water Act at all 14 of its coal ash disposal sites. As we approach the fifth anniversary of the Kingston disaster, EPA has yet to finalize federal regulations for coal ash disposal–take a moment now to demand comprehensive regulations protecting all communities from this toxic threat.


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