Study: Higher amounts of contaminants found in fish around Yadkin River
Editor’s note: The following story has been altered to reflect a correction in a health study presented Monday by state officials.
BADIN — State officials have found elevated levels of an industrial contaminant in nine fish in three different local lakes.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services performed the study on Yadkin River-fed lakes and found that Polychlorinated Biphenyls, or PCBs, were found primarily in fish over 18 inches in length.
Environmentalists have criticized the department of not acting to protect public health by expanding warnings against eating fish.
But health officials maintain that state guidelines for eating fish like large-mouth bass and catfish will protect the public.
Officials held the packed meeting Monday in a remote park lodge at Morrow Mountain State Park just one day before a public hearing is set to hear comments from community members on Alcoa’s request for a water-quality certification that would put them on track for a federal license to operate the dams for up to another 50 years.
But Alcoa officials said a new advanced analysis method and older, bigger fish led to the boost in contamination numbers.
“Again, in every sample they found low levels of PCB in all the levels of fish,” Kirk Gribben, manager of remediation services for Alcoa, told the Post. “The only levels that were elevated were older, longer catfish. In some of the samples that had catfish that were over 20 pounds for example. Those were the ones that had higher PCBs.”
State health officials said PCBs don’t break down in fish and typically increase in concentration as predatory fish feed on others.
Environmentalists represented by Duke University law professor Ryke Longest collected data from the study under a public records request. He wrote State Health Director Laura Gerald two weeks ago, saying the agency has known the breadth of PCB pollution for some time and “has not acted to protect the public health” by expanding warnings against eating fish from two reservoirs in addition to the one where the notice has been posted since 2009.
“Every day in which fish consumption advisories are delayed is another day the public stands unprotected,” Longest wrote.
State public health officials have warned since 2009 against eating largemouth bass and catfish caught in Badin Lake, located east of Charlotte, because they had elevated PCB levels. Alcoa contested the 2009 fish warnings in a state administrative court.
There also has been a statewide advisory since 2002 urging pregnant women and children under 15 against eating catfish or other species whose feeding results in mercury collecting in their bodies, state health officials said. Everyone else is encouraged to limit consumption of those fish.
Health officials said Monday the state mandated recommendation is more restrictive than a separate recommendation addressing the Yadkin River area.
The state guidelines are “more protective, more restrictive than that,” said Sandra Mort, health assessor in the public health division’s office. “There was no reason to confuse the issue. We thought it was a simpler thought process for people that catch and eat these fish.”
Still, tempers flared between residents and officials during a brief public comment period after the presentation.
Yadkin Riverkeeper member Dean Naujoks was one of the most vocal, criticizing the state’s apparent approval of Alcoa’s recommended remediation actions for contamination areas.
Naujoks also attacked Mort’s response to questions about previously posting consumption warnings at Badin Lake and not the surrounding reservoirs.
“I don’t understand why you post Badin Lake but yet people living on Lake Tillery deserve differently and you’re not going to protect public health?” Naujoks asked.
“We are protecting public health,” Mort snapped back. “Why are you saying we’re not protecting public health.”
“You’re asking us to put signs up at bait shops and help you. This is your job,” Naujoks replied.”
“No. We’re asking you for information on where we can provide the information so that it’s disseminated as widely as possible,” Mort said. “No one knows this community around this place better than the people that live here. We’re asking you to tell us where we can connect with the most people.”
PCBs are chemicals formerly used as coolants and transformer lubricants that were released into the environment through manufacturing, or improper disposal and storage of electrical equipment. PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in animals, as well as affect their immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says on its web site. Human studies provide supportive evidence but are less definitive, the federal agency said.
Alcoa has acknowledged it likely is responsible for the PCB contamination in sediment near the defunct smelter on the southern shore of Badin Lake. But state officials said four years ago that most of the contaminated fish found in the lake came from its northern end. Health officials said the PCBs could have traveled by air and Alcoa said they might have come from upstream.
The study was intended to better pinpoint the problem.
“This is a watershed issue that is not specific to Alcoa, but associated with industrial and municipal discharges upstream,” Alcoa relicensing manager E. Ray Barham said in a statement.
The study comes as state environmental regulators are considering whether to certify that the company’s operation of four hydroelectric dams built decades ago to power the Alcoa smelter won’t harm water quality in the Yadkin River. That certification is needed for Alcoa to renew its 50-year federal hydroelectric license.
A public hearing on the water quality certification is scheduled Tuesday in Albemarle.
Electricity generated by the dams no longer powers the smelter, which once employed nearly 1,000. The power is now sold on the wholesale market and Alcoa keeps any profits.
Alcoa estimated in 2006 that the dams generated almost $44 million a year in revenues. Over 50 years, that could mean revenues of more than $2 billion, an amount that could multiply if demand for clean power booms. But Alcoa’s financial statements and reports to federal regulators show revenues for each of the past five years have been below the 2006 estimate.
Alcoa recently covered a three-acre section of the Badin Lake bottom near the former smelter to keep PCBs there from moving. The sediments were no risk to humans and capping them prevented disturbance, the company said.
Environmental activists want state environmental regulators to force a full cleanup of the health-harming industrial contaminant so that the fish are safe to eat.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.