Coal Ash Pollutes North Carolina Drinking Water, Kills Fish

North Carolina’s environmental wellness has taken a hit this month, with a new study revealing that coal ash in Sutton Lake outside Wilmington is killing nearly a million fish every year. According to the Wake Forest University researchers, the wellbeing of other Carolina fish is at stake, with thousands being deformed by the coal ash.


In a statement, the research team noted that they ‘found several species of fish showing disturbing mutations of the heads, mouths, spines, and tails,’ after analysing more than 1,400 fish from Sutton Lake. ‘Many fish die before reaching maturity,’ they lamented. ‘In addition, the study found the population of catchable bass has dropped by 50% since 2008, affecting the popular bass fishing economy at the lake.’ Lead researcher Dennis Lemly, a research associate professor of biology at Wake Forest University and a leading expert on selenium poisoning, pointed the finger at Duke Energy, the owner and operator of a power plant that houses four coal ash waste pits. On December 3rd, four conservation groups called for immediate action from Duke Energy.


This isn’t only an environmental wellness concern, but one of financial health. Known for its public recreational fishing, commercial fishery, and as a source of food to subsistence fishers who live nearby, Sutton Lake may face major economic problems if the coal ash issue is not soon fixed. The four conservation groups –the Sierra Club, Southern Environmental Law Centre, the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Cape Fear River Watch – argued that the study’s findings underscore the urgency of solidifying regulations on coal ash, and Duke Energy needs to take immediate action. In the groups’ statement, Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Centre, commented, ‘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.’


Earlier this month, Duke Energy Renewables Inc. – the parent company of Duke Energy –  pleaded guilty to killing eagles with its wind turbines in Wyoming. However, when it comes to coal ash, the battle is being fought nationwide. At the end of October 2013, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were given 60 days to set federal coal ash regulations in a lawsuit against the agency involving, among other parties, the Moapa Band of Paiutes. Still, while this deadline was given by a federal judge, it deals with emissions under the Clean Air Act – not water or ground pollution.


This isn’t the first time North Carolina’s drinking water has fallen prey to coal ash contamination. In 2012, a study undertaken by researchers at Duke University in Durham showed high levels of selenium in waters flowing to places like Mountain Island Lake, one of the main sources of drinking water for Charlotte. This was based on an analysis of more than 300 water samples from 11 lakes and rivers. At the time, Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, stated, ‘In several cases, we found contamination levels that far exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for safe drinking water and aquatic life.’


Professor Vengosh continued, ‘We are saving the sky by putting in more scrubbers to remove particulates from power plant emissions, but these contaminants don’t just disappear. As our study shows, they remain in high concentrations in the solid waste residue and wastewater the coal-fired power plants produce. Yet there are no systematic monitoring or regulations to reduce water-quality impacts from coal ash ponds because coal ash is not considered as hazardous waste.’ Kelly Martin, with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, in the conservation groups’ December 3rd statement, pointed out, ‘We know coal ash pollution harms people, wildlife, and our treasured natural places. Duke Energy needs to stop stalling and take responsibility for its ongoing violations.’

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