Environmental groups released a report earlier this week that suggests a shuttered Duke Coal plant is seeping the chemical selenium into Sutton Lake, killing nearly a million blue gill per year. State numbers are not as clear cut about the fish’s health.
The report shows pictures of blue gill with deformed noses, spines, and tails. The report’s author, Wake Forest University biologist Dennis Lemly, estimates high concentrations of selenium kill 20 to 30 percent of blue gill and bass in the lake. Environmental groups say numbers from the Wildlife Resource Commission, which monitors fisheries, show bass have decreased by half the past few years.
“We did see a drop from 2008 to 2009, and then another drop from 2009 to 2010,” commission spokesman Chris Waters says. “Historically that population has varied year to year and that could be due to a number of potential factors, and selenium certainly could be one of those.”
E-mails obtained by the Southern Environmental Law Center show that during those years, the commission was concerned about the possibility of high levels of selenium discharged from coal ash ponds at Sutton Steam Station, a Duke-owned coal plant, which the lake is designed to cool. But, Waters says, those concerns dissipated, because the fish population recovered.
“The question was would we continue to see poor year classes because for some ongoing issue or would the population rebound?” Waters says. “Once we saw the population rebound, our concern as it impacts the population as a whole is lessened.”
That would seem to back up Duke’s take on the situation. The utility admits selenium is higher than normal, but says the levels are not high enough to be harmful, the fish are robust, and the report is another thrust in a wider attack by the environmental groups on coal. The Southern Environmental Law Center and the Waterkeeper Alliance are part of state lawsuits over Duke’s storage of coal ash at its plants, including the Riverbend Steam Station in Gaston County.
While the population has recovered, other numbers call the health of those fish into question. The Wildlife Commission tracks relative weight, a common measure of fish condition. The weight of both bass and blue gill have remained sub-par for years. That does not mean selenium’s at fault, but it suggests something in the habitat is impacting the health of the fish.
The commission says it is reviewing the selenium report.