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VANCOUVER — Sutton Lake, near Wilmington, North Carolina, isn’t a place many British Columbians have heard about. But it might not be long before it is cited in court documents here, because of a study that quantifies the cost of replacing fish killed by pollutants.
The 1,100-acre lake was created in 1971 on land owned by Duke Energy to cool water coming from the Sutton Steam Plant. To form the lake, the power company had to dam a creek, which the state government approved only on the condition the reservoir was developed as a public fishery.
The company agreed – and soon had created a place where the fishing was so good it became the focus of bass tournaments.
Sutton Lake, however, was also polluted with selenium leaching from coal ash stored in nearby waste pits. And that’s why Sutton Lake is relevant in Canada, where selenium pollution produced by coal, uranium and bitumen extraction is of growing concern.
Dennis Lemly, a leading expert on selenium poisoning and an associate professor at Wake Forest University, reported in a study last month that fish in the lake are being killed and deformed by low but chronic levels of pollution.
He collected more than 1,400 fish from the lake and found them suffering from an array of abnormalities – including twisted spines, distorted mouths and bent tails. He attributes the mutations directly to selenium.
Dr. Lemly also calculated that many fish died at early stages of life because selenium concentrates in fish eggs and deformed young fish are easy prey for predators.
Selenium is a naturally occurring chemical element, but it can be harmful in even very tiny amounts.
It is of concern in B.C. because selenium is released into the environment by coal mining and it has already been detected in the Elk River in the southeast corner of the province, and in the Peace River watershed in the northeast.
In northern Alberta, selenium has been found in the Athabasca River, downstream of the oil sands, where First Nations have been complaining about deformed fish for several years, although no cause has been determined.
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