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Editorial: Bad sign for Lake Badin

If the proverbial canary in the coal mine is a guide to air quality, then fish in a lake must perform a similar service in helping to gauge the water quality in our streams and reservoirs.
In that case, Badin Lake’s fish have a problem ó a problem serious enough for the state to issue an advisory Wednesday warning that people should strictly limit their consumption of catfish or largemouth bass from the lake because of the presence of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. PCBs have been linked to several health risks including cancer. You don’t need a degree in biology to realize the implications here: If Badin’s fish, which were already subject to a mercury warning, have a problem, then people have a problem, too.
The state study that found the PCBs doesn’t theorize about their source. That will be the subject of an investigation by the N.C. Division of Water Quality. However, it doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to think there might be a connection with Alcoa’s now-defunct Badin smelting operation. Alcoa has previously acknowledged that it was probably responsible for traces of PCBs detected earlier in lake sediment near the closed plant, but some of the contaminated fish were found on the opposite end of the lake. That could suggest an upstream source, or even an up-wind one, since PCBs can travel long distances by air. Researchers may have to take more fish and water samples before reaching a conclusion.
The PCB contamination throws another loop into Alcoa’s ongoing application for renewal of its 50-year federal hydroelectric license for the Yadkin River. Although more than 20 regional stakeholders previously signed off on the application, it has drawn stiff resistance from Stanly County officials and a group known as the N.C. Water Rights Committee who argue that, with the smelter shut down, there’s no longer a clear benefit to the state in giving Alcoa longterm rights to continue operating and profiting from its Yadkin hydroelectric plants. They’ve also raised previous concerns about contamination in Lake Badin, concerns voiced recently by Dean Naujoks, the new Yadkin Riverkeeper, who argues that clean-up of contamination needs to be part of the federal licensing negotiations.
As a prerequisite to federal approval, Alcoa must get certification from the state water-quality division that its dams and lakes aren’t damaging the Yadkin River. While we shouldn’t assume Alcoa’s culpability in the PCB contamination, state officials shouldn’t proceed as if these are two unrelated issues. Water quality is not only a relevant issue in the relicensing process; it may well be the primary issue. For the sake of Badin’s catfish and bass and the rest of us who have a stake in the health of our lakes and rivers, state officials should get some definitive answers about the origin and extent of these dangerous contaminants before signing off on anything.
Read the Badin Lake advisory at: www.epi.state.nc.us/epi/fish/current.html

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