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New Study Claims Coal Ash Waste is Deforming Sutton Lake's Fish

The Southern Environmental Law Center
The report compared mutated and healthy fish. This top fish, evidencing pugnose deformity, is from Sutton Lake.

The controversy surrounding the ongoing impact of coal ash pollution from Wilmington’s Sutton Energy Plant is intensifying.  A biologist commissioned by the Southern Environmental Law Center released a report today claiming that coal ash waste is elevating levels of selenium pollution in Sutton Lake. Environmental advocates say this is killing and deforming thousands of fish, and thus threatening local fishing and tourism industries.  WHQR’s Katie O’Reilly reports.

Dr. Dennis Lemly of Wake Forest University analyzed 1,400 fish from Sutton Lake and found mutations in nearly a third of them. He says such deformities are usually lethal to fish, and that the population of Sutton Lake’s catchable bass has dropped by fifty percent since 2008. While the health impacts of consuming these fish are as yet unknown, he says the economic losses could exceed a million dollars per year for the fishing industry, which could pose long-term impacts on local tourism.

"If the selenium input to Lake Sutton was terminated today, we could expect to see continuing effects on the fishery in terms of accumulation and poisoning for about another forty-six years before we’d be back to a state where concentrations would be reduced below toxic thresholds."

Duke Energy Progress calls the report’s claims highly suspect. They recently retired coal operations at Sutton and switched to natural gas. A company spokesperson says ash basin discharges have decreased substantially, and that catch rates in the lake are quite positive. Still, environmental advocates say they’re hopeful that conclusions from the study will result in tightened water quality criteria, at both state and federal levels.