Study Claims Coal Ash Kills Almost 1M Fish In Sutton Lake

Dec 4, 2013

A new report funded by environmental organizations finds the chemical selenium kills nearly a million fish a year in a popular sport-fishing lake near Wilmington. The organizations blame a nearby Duke Energy coal plant. Duke says it is just another attack from groups with an anti-coal agenda.

A picture of bluegill in Lemly's report. The report says the top bluegill's curved tail is abnormal, and indicative of deformities caused by selenium.
Credit Biological Assessment To Determine Impacts of Selenium Pollution From Coal Ash Wastewater Discharges on Fish Populations in Lake Sutton, NC / Southern Environmental Law Center

In the 1970s, selenium from a Duke coal plant in Stokes County almost killed off the entire fishing population of Belews Creek. While that creek is recovering, a new report contends another lake near Wilmington is similarly suffering from selenium.

Dennis Lemly, a biologist with the US Forest Service and a research professor at Wake Forest University, conducted the report. He is one of the foremost researchers on selenium and its toxic effects on water, fish, and people.

“Selenium is well-known to cause deformities and abnormalities in young fish,” Lemly said on a conference call. “Deformities of all sorts of bony structures in the fish—everything from the mouth, to the skull, to the spine, to the tail, to the fins. You name it.”

Lemly lends his services to environmental organizations looking for evidence of pollution. In this case, the Southern Environmental Law Center commissioned him to look at Sutton Lake, a popular bass fishing lake near Wilmington. The center, along with the Sierra Club and Waterkeeper Alliance, hosted the conference call to report Lemly’s findings.

“The concentrations of selenium in Lake Sutton are 5-10 times the toxic threshold for the beginnings of deformities,” Lemly said on the call.

The report shows pictures of deformed bluegills, with curved spines and noses. Lemly extrapolates that 20 to 30 percent of, blue gill are dying per year because of selenium.

Sutton Lake is a man-made lake. Progress Energy, now merged with Duke, created it four decades ago to cool the power plant that sits on the lake’s edge. Duke, which recently shuttered the plant, admits there are higher levels of selenium in the water, from coal ash discharge, but says the lake was designed for those levels. The company also says those are not high enough to hurt the fish. Spokeswoman Erin Culbert says the lake has lots of fish, high catch rates, and its own bass tournaments, which dispute the report’s findings.

“So I think what we see in this report we find highly suspicious,” Culbert says. “And really common sense does not support the findings there.”

A spokesman for the Wildlife Resources Commission, which monitors fish levels, says the commission had concerns about selenium when fish populations were decreasing a couple of years ago, but they have since rebounded.

The selenium report is just the most recent skirmish between environmental groups and Duke Energy over coal ash. The Southern Environmental Law Center has joined state law suits against all 14 of Dukes’ North Carolina coal plants for allowing contaminants from coal ash to seep into groundwater and drinking water supplies. The center also has two federal lawsuits, disputing Duke’s rights on Sutton Lake and Mountain Island Lake in Gaston County.