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dlisenbyWill a death toll of 900,000 be the body count it takes for the public to finally say enough, already? Or will it also take another set of grisly photographs of maimed bodies, deformed skulls, misshapen mouths and twisted spines?

The breaking news out of Wilmington, NC today has both.

Unfortunately, this latest episode is not a single, isolated incident. It is but the latest attack by a serial killer that has taken thousands of lives all across the country, on what has become a nearly 30-year killing spree. The culprit is notorious; the whodunit was solved decades ago. Yet, authorities allow the mayhem to go on, so the death and destruction continues unabated.

A new study confirms that Duke Energy’s toxic coal ash pollution is killing more than 900,000 fish and deforming thousands more each year in Lake Sutton, a popular fishing destination just outside of Wilmington, NC. Dr. Dennis Lemly, Research Associate Professor of Biology at Wake Forest University and a leading expert on selenium poisoning conducted the study. He analyzed more than 1,400 fish from the lake and found disturbing mutations of the heads, mouths, spines and tails in several species of fish. Here are just seven of the 18 photos of deformed fish that were included in the study report.

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Two abnormal and one normal bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) from Lake Sutton. The two on top had the craniofacial deformity called “pugnose” in which the mouth and jaws extend beyond the head while the head and mouth are compressed or shortened. A significant “under bite” is created as a result of a malformed cranial skeletal structure and gill cover. The bottom individual is normal.

 

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The head and mouth of a “pugnose” bluegill from Lake Sutton compared to a normal one.

 

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A “pugnose” (top) and a normal (bottom) crappie (Pomoxis sp.) from Lake Sutton.

 

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The abnormal bluegill (top) from Lake Sutton exhibits multiple defects.The mouth is permanently distended and less than 20 percent of its normal size. The gill cover is “gaping” distorted and permanently deformed. The bottom individual is normal. Note the difference in body condition. The top fish is slender while the bottom fish is more robust.

 

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A close up view of the heads on the deformed and normal fish from the photo above. Note the extremely undersized mouth and gaping, deformed gill cover. The mouth is so small it made it difficult for the young fish to eat larger food.

 

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Bluegill from Lake Sutton with a deformed spine (top) compared to a normal fish. The spinal malformations exhibited by this fish and many others pictured in the study are called lordosis (“swayback”) and kyphosis (rounded back).

 

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A deformed mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis) from Lake Sutton with lateral curvature of the spine (scoliosis).

Facial and spinal deformities in baby fish affect their ability to eat and swim. Many young fish die before reaching maturity; long before someone trying to put supper on the table can catch them. One of the many jaw-dropping revelations in the study was the fact that no juvenile largemouth bass (less than 3 inches long) were found in two separate collection events at Lake Sutton. In contrast, many young bass were found in a single collection event at the non-contaminated reference lake that served as a baseline for the study. The most recent fish population assessment of Lake Sutton by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission noted that largemouth bass were in “poor condition,” declining 50 percent in both abundance and size between 2008 and 2010.

The value of lost natural resources at Lake Sutton goes well into the millions of dollars each year. The replacement cost of the lost fish is more than $4.5 million per year according to the study. If North Carolina replaced all fish killed by selenium pollution over the last 25 years in Lake Sutton, taxpayers would face a bill of more than $112 million. Duke Energy owned coal plants have been among the most notorious and prolific fish killers in the U.S. since 1976. See table below.

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The U.S. Enviromental Protection Agency (EPA), the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and Duke Energy have known for decades that selenium contamination from coal-fired power plants is a monumental fish killer. Nationwide, there are 22 other cases where coal-fired power plants caused severe damage to fisheries in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Michigan, Georgia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. The total estimated cost of all these fishery damage cases is $ 2.32 billion.

After Duke obliterated 17 species of fish in Belews Lake in the 1970’s, steps should have been taken to prevent selenium poisoning from killing more fish. Sadly, that didn’t happen and once coal-fired power plants operators saw Duke get away with it, the copycat serial killing of fish continued year after year.

Fortunately, the EPA has proposed two long overdue regulatory updates that could go a long way to addressing this serious problem, if the final rules are sufficiently strong. They are the stalled coal ash rule that was proposed 3 years ago and the coal power plant toxic water pollution rule that was just proposed earlier this year. It is important to note that both rules propose weaker options that will not fix the selenium fish kill problem. Only option 5 of the coal water pollution rule and the hazardous waste classification in the coal ash rule will have any chance of making the killing stop.

Lake Sutton is the 23rd public fishery to be severely damaged by toxic discharges from a coal-fired power plant. If you want to put your foot down and say: enough, already, we won’t allow this egregious toxic pollution any more, then take action here.

Tell U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to move forward with the strongest coal ash and coal water pollution rules possible because it is time to put an end to serial killing coal-fired power plants.

Visit EcoWatch’s COAL and WATER pages for more related news on this topic.

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