Duke Energy coal ash poisoning NC lake, study finds

The top two bluegill from Lake Sutton show the craniofacial defect known as "pugnose," which is characterized by deformed "underbite" mouth and jaws and compressed or shortened head and mouth. The bottom fish is normal. (Photo from Lemly's report, "Biological Assessment to Determine Impacts of Selenium Pollution From Coal Ash Wastewater Discharges on Fish Populations in Lake Sutton, NC.")

Pollution from coal ash waste pits at a Duke Energy power plant is killing over 900,000 fish and deforming thousands more each year in an eastern North Carolina lake popular for fishing and recreation.

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That's the finding of a new study by Wake Forest University biologist Dr. Dennis Lemly. He looked at the effects of selenium pollution on fish in Lake Sutton, created in 1972 when Catfish Creek, a tributary of the Cape Fear River, was dammed to provide cooling water for the L.V. Sutton power plant near Wilmington, N.C. A component of coal ash that builds up in the food chain, selenium is an essential trace mineral but in high doses can cause developmental abnormalities and reproductive failure in fish and other wildlife as well as neurological damage and other health problems in humans.

An expert on selenium pollution of fisheries, Lemly examined more than 1,400 fish collected from Lake Sutton between May and September of this year and found that 28 percent of them were deformed. He also found that the population of catchable bass in the lake has plummeted by 50 percent since 2008. Lemly figures that the replacement value of the lost fish is over $4.5 million per year -- an estimate that he calls "highly conservative."

"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 attorney Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), which commissioned the study as part of its ongoing efforts to force the company to clean up its coal ash pollution. Coal ash pollution has been documented at all 14 of Duke's North Carolina coal-fired power plants.

A spokesperson for Duke Energy told The Star-News of Wilmington that the company has been testing fish in Lake Sutton for decades and did not find the kind of problems documented in Lemly's report, which it said it finds "highly suspect."

Officials at Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) have known about the Lake Sutton pollution problem for years, but they have not taken initiative to clean it up -- even though selenium pollution from Duke's Belews Creek plant in Stokes County, N.C. led to the complete loss of almost all fish species in adjacent Belews Lake by the 1980s. A decade after that pollution was halted, research by Lemly found selenium was still present at a moderate risk level in sediment and was accumulating to toxic levels in fish eggs. Lemly said that if the selenium pollution from the Sutton plant was halted today, it would take 46 years for levels in Lake Sutton to fall below toxicity thresholds.

And the threat from the Sutton plant's coal ash pollution is not only to fish: Extensive groundwater pollution from the plant's coal ash ponds is endangering the private wells of about 400 households in nearby Flemington, N.C. Duke Energy agreed to pay most of the costs of running a water line to the community after the threat of legal action by SELC.

Earlier this year, SELC sent DENR and Duke Energy a notice that it planned to file a lawsuit over the company's illegal coal ash pollution. In response, DENR filed an enforcement action in state court. But to the disappointment of environmental advocates, DENR and Duke put forth a proposed settlement that came with a fine of just $99,000 -- for a company that last year reported profits of $1.8 billion -- and a requirement that Duke assess the sources and extent of contamination but no order to clean up pollution at Sutton. So in September, SELC filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Sierra Club, Cape Fear River Watch, and the Waterkeeper Alliance to force cleanup.

"We have seen that once citizen groups take legal action, things happen," Holleman noted in a Dec. 3 press teleconference announcing the Lemly report. But he said the burden of pursuing lawbreaking corporations should not be placed on nonprofit groups when the state is supposed to be providing regulatory oversight.

Similar threats of legal action have resulted in conservation groups reaching settlements with South Carolina utilities Santee Cooper and SCE&G, but Holleman says that Duke has "lawyered up" and filed a motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit. A decision on that is expected late this winter or early in the spring.

Duke Energy plans to stop burning coal next year at the Sutton plant, where construction is underway on a natural gas-fired facility. Sutton is also home to one of the company's largest renewable energy projects, a 1.2 megawatt solar array. However, those modern power generation facilities sit next to the primitive, unlined pits where the company has been dumping coal ash waste for decades.

"The problem won't go away when Duke Energy stops burning coal at the plant," said Kelly Martin of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.

After the collapse of one such massive coal ash pit at TVA's Kingston plant in eastern Tennessee five years ago this month contaminated two rivers and wrecked a neighborhood, the federal Environmental Protection Agency launched a process to establish federal rules for coal ash, which is currently overseen by the states.

The EPA issued proposed regulations in 2010, but the rulemaking process then stalled amid resistance by politically powerful electric utilities, including Duke Energy, and their friends in Congress. Again, nonprofit conservation and public health groups sprung into action, filing a lawsuit challenging the EPA's inaction. In late October, a federal court gave the agency 60 days to set a proposed deadline for the federal rules.

Holleman pointed to the situation in the Carolinas to illustrate why federal rules for coal ash are so important. While South Carolina utilities are taking steps to clean up their coal ash pollution, it continues in some of the very same watersheds in North Carolina. For example, Santee Cooper is emptying its coal ash pits along the Catawba-Wateree, but Duke Energy has resisted moving its coal ash from the banks of Mountain Island Lake, also on the Catawba and a drinking water source for the Charlotte area.

"There's no reason people in North Carolina should have less protection than people in South Carolina," Holleman said.