Press Release | December 3, 2013

Duke Energy Coal Ash Pollution Deforms Fish in Sutton Lake

Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution is killing over 900,000 fish and deforming thousands more each year in Sutton Lake near Wilmington, N.C., according to a new study conducted by Dr. Dennis Lemly, research associate professor of biology at Wake Forest University and a leading expert on selenium poisoning.

The study shows that selenium pollution coming from coal ash waste pits at Duke Energy’s Sutton power plant into the lake triggers mutations and death of several fish species, even at low levels. Sutton Lake is a public fishery, a popular recreational fishing lake and important to subsistence fishers living in the area. In response to the study findings, conservation groups are calling on Duke Energy to take immediate steps to address the toxic pollution coming from coal ash pits at Sutton Lake.

“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,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The study analyzed more than 1,400 fish from Sutton Lake and found several species of fish showing disturbing mutations of the heads, mouths, spines, and tails. Many fish die before reaching maturity. In addition, the study found the population of catchable bass has dropped by 50 percent since 2008, affecting the popular bass fishing economy at the lake.

The value of lost natural resources at Sutton Lake exceeds millions of dollars each year. The replacement cost of the lost fish is over $4.5 million per year; according to the study.  If North Carolina replaced all fish killed by selenium pollution in the lake over the last 25 years, taxpayers would face a bill of more than $112 million. For subsistence and sport fishermen, the value of the lost fish exceeds $1.1 million per year and more than $28 million for a 25 year period.

Selenium builds up in living organisms over time, even a small amount in water can increase exponentially in fish and wildlife. For humans, high levels of selenium can be deadly, while lower levels cause nervous system problems, brittle hair and deformed nails. Long-term exposure to selenium pollution in people can cause damage to the liver, the kidneys, and to the nervous and circulatory systems.

“Conservation advocates have uncovered shocking evidence of water pollution from Duke Energy’s coal ash pits in Asheville, and now this new study shows how the same thing is happening in Wilmington. 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,” said Kelly Martin, with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Duke Energy knew about the selenium contamination at Sutton Lake for years, but did not stop pollution leaks. Earlier this year, the Southern Environmental Law Center sent the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Duke Energy notice of its intent to file suit to clean up coal ash pollution at Sutton.  In response, DENR filed a state court enforcement action, and the state court allowed the Southern Environmental Law Center to intervene in the action on behalf of Cape Fear Riverwatch, the Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance.  The conservation groups also filed suit in federal court to require cleanup of the coal ash pollution under the federal Clean Water Act.

Although Duke Energy plans to stop burning coal at the Sutton plant in 2014, the report shows that selenium contamination in the lake sediments will continue to harm fish for years to come.

“This study clearly shows that Duke Energy is poisoning one of our region’s most important natural resources with coal ash pollution,” said Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper.  “The scale of damage from this pollution is huge. Duke Energy should clean up its coal ash pollution before more harm is done.”

During the past decade, scientists and environmental activists nationwide have advocated for tighter selenium limits, emphasizing the impacts on fisheries and surrounding communities while industry groups have pushed back against regulations.

“Sutton Lake is clearly contaminated by toxic coal ash pollution, and is a harrowing symbol of what’s happening to rivers and lakes across the U.S.,” said Donna Lisenby, Global Coal Campaign Coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance.  “As long as coal ash is stored in unlined pits and discharged straight into our rivers, lakes and drinking water reservoirs without any limits, our natural resources and all of us are at risk.”

The study was conducted at the request of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents Cape Fear River Watch, the Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance in legal actions to clean up the coal ash pollution at Sutton Lake.

About Cape Fear River Watch
Founded in 1993, Cape Fear River Watch works to protect and improve the water quality of the Lower Cape Fear River Basin through education, advocacy, and action.

About the Sierra Club
Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization. Inspired by nature, we are 2.1 million of your friends and neighbors, working together to protect our communities and the planet. Read more at

About the Waterkeeper Alliance
Founded in 1999 by environmental attorney and activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and several veteran Waterkeeper Organizations, Waterkeeper Alliance is a global movement of on-the-water advocates who patrol and protect over 100,000 miles of rivers, streams and coastlines in North and South America, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa.

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

Frank Holleman

Senior Attorney with a focus on litigation

Phone: 919-967-1450

Kathleen Sullivan

Senior Communications Manager (NC)

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