By Greg Barnes

On a bus tour in February, members of the state’s Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board wondered aloud why no signs are posted at Sutton Lake near Wilmington to warn people that the fish they catch may be unsafe to eat.

Two years earlier, a Duke University study had found high levels of selenium in fish in Sutton and two other North Carolina lakes that had been used as cooling reservoirs for coal-powered energy plants. The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry classifies selenium as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

In Sutton Lake, the Duke researchers found that 85 percent of fish muscle samples contained selenium at higher levels than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers safe to eat. Overexposure to selenium can result in a variety of problems from brittle nails to, in more serious cases, neurological and cardiac effects.

Four years previously, a study by Wake Forest University found that selenium in the lake was killing or deforming thousands of fish each year.

Today, there are still no signs posted at a public boat ramp or fishing dock warning of the potential risks of eating fish from the lake, a popular spot for boaters, and, according to the environmental justice board, poor people who fish for subsistence off the dock.

Senator wants warning signs

State Sen. Harper Peterson, a Democrat from New Hanover County, hopes to change that.

Peterson found himself at the lake for a news conference last week, flanked by Democratic state Rep. Deb Butler of New Hanover County and Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette.

shows a lake with pilings sticking up from the water.
High levels of coal ash solids in sediments from North Carolina’s Sutton Lake suggest it has been contaminated by multiple coal ash spills, most of them apparently unmonitored and unreported. Photo: Avner Vengosh, Duke University

There, Peterson unveiled a seven-point action plan (see box, bottom) that calls for, “at the very least,” signs warning people of the fish contamination and the possible threat to their health, as well as restricting public access to the lake as a precaution until the lake is deemed clear of contamination. Peterson thinks Duke Energy, not its customers, should pay for any cleanup.

Peterson’s action plan follows yet another Duke University study of coal ash in Sutton Lake, this one published May 24 in the journal Science of the Total Environment. Duke released a statement about the study on June 3.

The study found sediments collected in 2015 and 2018 suggest that the lake has been contaminated by multiple coal-ash spills, “most of them apparently unmonitored and unreported until now.”

Not just selenium

In addition to selenium, the many metals detected in Sutton Lake sediment include the known human carcinogen arsenic, and thallium, once used as rat poison.

The study’s lead author, Avner Vengosh, said in the statement that the coal ash found at the bottom of Sutton Lake rivals that found in stream sediment following the Dan River coal ash spill near Eden in 2014 and the coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., in 2008.

In the Dan River spill, a drainage pipe burst at a coal ash pond owned by Duke Energy, sending 39,000 tons of ash into the river. As a result, the state ordered Duke Energy to close its 32 coal ash ponds across the state by 2029. Duke is now fighting a state order that it excavate all of its ponds, rather than capping some of them in place.

NC Board of Nursing Protecting the Public y Regulating the Practice of Nursing

Sutton Lake served as a cooling reservoir for a Duke Energy coal-fired power plant from the 1970s until the plant was replaced with a natural gas-powered plant in 2013. The lake sits along the banks of the Cape Fear River, about 11 miles upstream of Wilmington.

In September of 2018, Hurricane Florence caused an earthen dam to break at the 1,100-acre lake, and flood waters caused coal ash to spill from a landfill under construction near the power plant.

Shortly after the hurricane, Duke released a statement saying the coal ash that spilled “has not impacted water quality in Sutton Lake.” The power company said about 2,000 cubic yards of soil and ash had spilled, an amount that would fill about two-thirds of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Burdette, the riverkeeper and head of Cape Fear River Watch, thinks Duke substantially underestimated the amount of the spill and its effects on the ecosystem. Like Peterson, Burdette thinks the state should be warning people about the contamination in Sutton Lake.

“I totally agree that if you have a body of water where there is credible research that suggests that it might be contaminated, you ought to be assuring people that the fish are safe to eat,” Burdette said.

State needs to act

Burdette thinks the lion’s share of responsibility to post warning signs lies with the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Kelly Haight, a spokeswoman for DHHS, said in an email late Tuesday afternoon that the department is working on the issue with the state Department of Environmental Quality and the New Hanover County Health Department.

aerial shot of a power plant that's inundated with water. its hard to see the boundaries of the coal as waste pond under the water.
Duke Energy’s Sutton Plant, a 625-megawatt natural gas facility was inundated by rising Cape Fear River waters in the wake of Hurricane Florence. The plant provides enough energy to power half a million homes.
In the flood, a retaining pond containing coal ash from a facility on the same site that was coal-powered and decommissioned in 2013 was overtopped, releasing coal ash into floodwaters that include Sutton Lake. Photo credit: Elizabeth Page/ NCHN

Haight said DHHS will issue a fish-consumption advisory and work with the Health Department “to assure that appropriate signs are posted if needed based on the results.”

Burdette said the state has to conduct its own fish studies before it can take action. It cannot rely solely on independent studies. State fish testing could and should be done quickly, though, he said.

It’s now been six years since the Wake Forest study found fish were dying and becoming deformed from excessive levels of selenium, which accumulates in the environment, meaning birds and other wildlife may also be at risk.

Duke University’s most recent study, by the Nicholas School of the Environment, suggests that flooding caused coal ash to spill into Sutton Lake long before Florence. Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality at the school, said in the statement that further analysis will be needed to determine the timeline of the spills. Vengosh, who led the research, said accidental spills and past dumping practices could not be ruled out.

“What’s happened at Sutton Lake highlights the risk of large-scale unmonitored spills occurring at coal ash storage sites nationwide. This is particularly true in the Southeast where we see many major land-falling tropical storms and have a large number of coal ash impoundments located in areas vulnerable to flooding,” Vengosh said in the statement.

Duke Energy, meanwhile, contends that fish in Sutton Lake are safe to eat.


“Duke Energy has conducted a continuous robust sampling program at Sutton Lake following Hurricane Florence assessing a wide range of trace elements, including selenium, in both the total and dissolved forms,” company spokesperson Bill Norton told the Coastal Review Online. “Both Duke Energy’s fisheries sampling program and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources sampling program continue to show Sutton Lake has a healthy and sustaining fish community, despite what others who have not conducted continuous sampling in the lake may claim.”

Vengosh said he has looked but not seen any peer-reviewed studies by Duke Energy. He said if they have made studies, they should be “taken with a grain of salt.”

“If that is not transparent and it is not publicly available, it doesn’t mean anything,” Vengosh said.

Bass fisherman’s angle

Larry Thomas, a Wilmington business owner, has fished in Sutton Lake since it opened to the public around 1971. He won the Bojangles’ bass fishing tournament on the lake last year and finished in the top five this year. The event is billed as North Carolina’s oldest televised bass tournament, celebrating its 31st anniversary.

Thomas doesn’t consider himself a professional bass fisherman, though he claims to be among the best in eastern North Carolina. He also claims to know Sutton Lake about as well as anyone.

He said that all lakes go through periods of good and poor fishing and that Sutton Lake is no different. He said the dam break and high water probably has reduced the quality of fishing in the lake since Hurricane Florence. But fishing there remains good, he said, especially at night. Thomas said he has not seen evidence of fish kills or deformations, as reported in the Wake Forest study, but he only fishes for bass. The study focused on bluegill and other smaller fish.

“As far as Sutton Lake, it’s not fishing any different than it has over a period of the last 25 years,” he said.  “To me personally, no, the lake hasn’t diminished any.”

But Thomas and his fellow competitors don’t eat the fish they catch. They release them alive after each tournament.

Thomas said he has no problem with posting signs warning people that fish may be contaminated. He said he has heard about the pollution for years. But Thomas thinks it would be a terrible idea to close the lake to the public.

“The part I don’t understand is that Sutton Lake didn’t get this way this week,” he said. “To me, it’s not a big deal, but I don’t eat the fish that come out of Sutton Lake.”

Proposed Sutton Lake Action Plan

#1. NHC Health Dept. disclose publicly, analyze internally, and confer with other health agencies and health experts in the fields of toxicology and epidemiology the findings of Dr. Vengosh’s research and the evidence of contamination of the Sutton Lake ecosystem: environmental and human health risks associated coal ash deposits in sediment with Sutton Lake.
Particular concern must be given to high levels of the toxic and carcinogenic chemicals Selenium, Arsenic, & Cadmium.

#2. The NHC Health Dept., in conjunction with the NC Wildlife Resource commission, at the very least, post advisory notices at Sutton Lake, communicating the contamination of Sutton Lake and the potential health and safety risks to the public.
Furthermore, discussion must begin between local and state authorities and consideration given to restricting the public’s access to Lake Sutton, as a precautionary measure, until such time the lake’s ecosystem is given a clean bill of health.

#3. NC DEQ require Duke Energy to undertake a comprehensive sampling of Sutton Lake, as a follow up to the Vengosh team’s research, to fully understand the extent of the coal ash contamination of Sutton Lake and its e systems, contracting with a third party to conduct sediment sampling and analysis.

#4. NC DEQ/DOJ request all internal documents and records associated with regards to on sight management and practices of coal ash disposal and storage at coal fire plants throughout the state, as well as all records regarding intended or unintended spills or discharges into public waters at each of these facilities.

#5. Duke Energy be held responsible for all related testing, analysis and remediation costs associated with Sutton Lake coal ash contamination and that N.C. Utility Commission insure that NO associated costs be passed on to utility customers.

#6. Concern that similar unmonitored spills have occurred in other lakes near coal ash ponds in NC and that similar testing and analysis be required to undertaken by the responsible utilities, contracting with a third party and independent contractor.

#7. NC DOJ determine if the US Clean Water Act has been violated by Duke Energy’s coal ash management practices, beginning in 1972, with regards to Sutton Lake, which is classified as a “waters of the state” and what action should be taken by State and Federal government(s).

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Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at