Press Release | June 20, 2024

Bird sanctuary protected from planned toxic chemical use this year 

CHAPEL HILL, NC – As a result of a lawsuit filed by SELC on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to halt for this year its plans to turn Lake Mattamuskeet—the 40,000-acre centerpiece of an iconic migratory bird sanctuary—into a testing ground for a chemical that is toxic to birds.  

Plans were previously underway for the toxic algaecide experiment to start at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge this summer and run through the end of October, before resuming again in April 2025, prompting the conservation groups to ask the court to issue a preliminary injunction to block the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from allowing the algaecide experiment.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires the product to carry a label warning it is toxic to birds. Following a hearing on the request in federal court in Raleigh, the Fish and Wildlife Service voluntarily agreed to freeze its plans to move forward with the project in the eastern North Carolina lake. 

“This is a great day for everyone who values Lake Mattamuskeet and all of the geese, swans, ducks and hundreds of other birds that gather at the wildlife sanctuary,” said Ramona McGee, senior attorney and leader of the Wildlife Program at the Southern Environmental Law Center which represents the groups in court. “We’re all so relieved that these birds will not be exposed to toxic chemicals this year while the court reviews the legal problems with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s rushed and inadequate approval of this dangerous experiment.” 

FWS has now agreed that it will not proceed with the experiment this year. Instead, the parties will try to resolve the merits of the lawsuit through litigation and hope that a final decision will be reached before the April 2025 restart date. Late Tuesday, the court entered an order confirming the agreement and setting the schedule for briefing the case. 

“This agreement ensures that Lake Mattamuskeet and the birds that pass through it on their migratory paths will be kept safe from dangerous experiments with toxic chemicals — for now,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “We are confident that when the court decides the merits of the case that it will instruct Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge is fully protected from such poorly designed experiments, as the law requires.”  

A plan is already underway to improve water quality and reduce algae blooms in the lake, but after North Carolina’s General Assembly appropriated millions of North Carolina taxpayer dollars to test the algaecide, the Fish and Wildlife Service approved its use in Lake Mattamuskeet, even though the chemical can kill birds and corrode their beaks. In recent years, the Florida legislature has spent millions applying this product to several lakes and rivers, where it has failed to provide a lasting solution to harmful algal blooms that keep people from using the water.  

“We’re glad that common sense has prevailed and provided more time to scrutinize this flawed plan,” said Erin Carey, acting director of the N.C. Sierra Club. “We hope that closer review will prove that there’s no defensible reason why an algaecide that’s toxic to birds should be tested at one of this region’s most important bird sanctuaries.” 

Last month, the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, filed a federal lawsuit in the Eastern District of North Carolina challenging violations of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act. The conservation groups represented by SELC are asking the court to block the plan until the Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a full analysis that protects the mission and purpose of the wildlife refuge and takes a hard look at the toxic algaecide’s harms and the available alternatives. 

Are you a reporter and would like more information? Please visit our press contact page for a full list of SELC’s press contacts.

Press Contacts

Kathleen Sullivan

Senior Communications Manager (NC)

Phone: 919-945-7106
Email: [email protected]

Partner Contacts

Jay Petrequin

Defenders of Wildlife

Phone: 202-772-0243
Email: [email protected]

Margaret Lillard

NC Sierra Club

Phone: 919-332-8979
Email: [email protected]