Coal Ash Is Killing 900,000 Fish Each Year In A North Carolina Lake, Study Finds

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CREDIT: Dennis Lemly, Wake Forest University

A deformed mosquitofish from Lake Sutton showing lateral curvature of the spine.

A deformed mosquitofish from Lake Sutton showing lateral curvature of the spine.

CREDIT: Dennis Lemly, Wake Forest University

Coal ash is responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of fish in a North Carolina lake, according to a new study.

The study, commissioned by the Southern Environmental Law Center, looked at more than 1,400 fish from Sutton Lake and found some species showed deformities such as curved spines, misshaped or missing fins, and mouth and jaw defects — defects that the study said are consistent with elevated levels of selenium, a toxic element found in coal ash. Dennis Lemly, a research professor at Wake Forest University who conducted the study, said concentrations of selenium in Sutton Lake were “five to ten times the toxic threshold for the beginnings of deformities.”

“Selenium is well-known to cause deformities and abnormalities in young fish,” he said. “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.”

Because these deformities can kill young fish, the study estimates that about 900,000 fish are killed each year due to selenium exposure, a monetary loss of between $4.5 million and $7 million each year for the popular fishing lake.

Sutton Lake has long served as a cooling lake for a Duke Energy coal-fired power plant, and though Duke retired the plant’s coal-burning units last month, a group of environmental organizations is pushing the company to clean up coal ash from the lake. In September, the Southern Environmental Law Center and three other environmental groups filed suit against Duke Energy for its failure to clean up coal ash from Sutton Lake.

Though Duke has confirmed that elevated selenium levels do exist in Sutton Lake, the company denies that those levels are killing fish, saying its own sampling of the lake has unearthed no signs of unhealthy side effects.

This isn’t the first time selenium from coal ash has been tied to fish kills. In the 1970s, coal waste from a Duke Energy holding pond seeped into Belews Lake in North Carolina. Within four years, the selenium had killed off all but one species of native fish in the lake. And in 2008, a massive coal ash sludge spill in Tennessee made its way into tributaries of the Tennessee River and “resulted in a tremendous fish kill.”

That 2008 event sparked talk of federal regulation of coal ash, which right now is left largely up to states. In October 2009, the EPA drafted a plan to change the federal rules for storing coal ash, but little became of it. Research has shown coal ash should be a prime candidate for federal regulation — a 2007 draft study from the EPA found coal byproducts like fly ash to contain carcinogens and heavy metals, and that the arsenic in fly ash could increase cancer risk “several hundredfold” of it contaminated drinking water. But though the Obama administration promised before Obama took office to address coal ash, it has yet to do so successfully.