Coal ash expert discusses environmental effects of spill at the Dan River

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An abnormal bluegill from Lake Sutton with deformities that result from effects of selenium poisoning. The upper fish has multiple defects of the mouth (which is less than 20% of its normal size and permanently distended) and other craniofacial structures including “gaping,” a permanently deformed gill cover. The lower fish is normal. (Credit: Dennis Lemly)

An abnormal bluegill from Lake Sutton with deformities that result from effects of selenium poisoning. The upper fish has multiple defects of the mouth (which is less than 20% of its normal size and permanently distended) and other craniofacial structures including “gaping,” a permanently deformed gill cover. The lower fish is normal. (Credit: Dennis Lemly)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- An associate professor of biology at Wake Forest University has investigated two dozen cases of coal ash contamination in his career, including the most recent spill at the Dan River.

Dennis Lemly started studying coal ash when he was a graduate student at the university.

“My work deals not only with the spills, but also with the general practice of surface impalement of coal ash,” said Lemly. “I started in 1978, and here we are decades later and I'm investigating another ash poisoning of fish and wildlife from the same electric utility company, under the same watchful eyes of the same state regulatory agencies. So nothing has changed in North Carolina.”

In all the cases he’s seen as a researcher for the university and the U.S. Forest Service, damage from coal ash pollution has been two-fold. First, the coal ash kills everything on the bottom of the river or lake. Then, the fish community virtually disappears.

Lemly says the fish that survive start eating food covered with chemicals from coal ash, which can potentially cause deformities in their offspring.

Fish caught at Belews Lake in 1980 had severe skeletal deformities. (Credit: Dennis Lemly)

Fish caught at Belews Lake in 1980 had severe skeletal deformities. (Credit: Dennis Lemly)

Pictures provided by Lemly show severe deformities in fish found at two different lakes contaminated by coal ash wastewater, 33 years apart. Fish caught at Belews Lake in 1980 had severe skeletal deformities, while fish found at Sutton Lake in 2013 showed deformities of the mouth and gills.

“Those deformities can range from everything from spinal deformities to deformities of the head the mouth, the gills, the tail, the fins. Virtually any hard boney surface of the fish can be deformed, because of too much selenium in the egg,” said Lemly.

Lemly says deformed fish may start hatching at the Dan River by the spring, and it may be years before the area recovers.

“The solution ultimately is to stop burning coal, because if we don't produce the ash, we don't have to dispose of it somewhere and create a problem,” said Lemly.

Until that happens, he says there need to be new federal regulations under the Environmental Protection Agency to give states better guidance for safe coal ash disposal.

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