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Conservation Groups File Federal Lawsuit Against Duke / Progress Over Sutton Lake Pollution

Duke / Progress Energy is facing yet another lawsuit over coal ash pollution from its Sutton Energy Plant just outside of Wilmington. 

Attorneys with the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a federal action Thursday, September 12th, seeking to compel the utility giant to clean up Sutton Lake. 

Three conservation groups, Cape Fear River Watch, Sierra Club, and the Waterkeeper Alliance, say they’re seeking to enforce the laws that the state of North Carolina has chosen not to enforce. 

The complaint charges Duke with violating the Clean Water Act, threatening human health through a contaminated public fishery, and potentially contaminating the drinking water supply of a nearby community.  Dangerously elevated levels of selenium, a heavy metal that’s a by-product of coal waste, are killing the fish in the lake, and threatening the health of the people who eat those fish, according to the suit. 

But Erin Culbert, a spokesperson for Duke, says there is absolutely no current or imminent threat to public health.  The company regularly monitors both the water quality and fish tissue.  

“Our monitoring continues to show that trace elements in the cooling pond are well within surface water quality standards and also the monitoring that we’ve conducted over the years for the game fish continues to show that mercury and selenium are below state levels for fish consumption advisories.  So we know that water quality remains well-protected in the cooling pond and fish do, as well.”  

“Well, it’s not within acceptable levels. That’s simply not true." 

That’s Frank Holleman, Senior Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.  He says the state recently built a new fishing pier at Lake Sutton.  And there are plenty of subsistence fishermen who use the lake as a food source.   

“We know from the documents that we’ve obtained that the fishery is being severely harmed.  And by state law, Lake Sutton is supposed to be managed as a public fishery.  That’s in state law.  That was a requirement when the lake was built.  So, the selenium levels are not within acceptable ranges.”

Duke’s Erin Culbert calls the suit premature because of the state’s current legal action. 

Holleman says he expects a judge to rule next month on whether the conservation groups will be accepted as interveners in the state’s complaint. 

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 4 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.