Fish in one of North Carolina's largest watersheds are more polluted by an industrial contaminant than previously reported and state health officials have failed to expand warnings against eating PBC-contaminated fish, according to a new study.
After more than a year of research and internal discussions, the state Department of Health and Human Services was scheduled to release its study of PCB contamination along a stretch of the Yadkin River near a shuttered aluminum smelter Alcoa Inc. operated for nearly a century. The study's release Monday comes the same day state environmental officials scheduled a community meeting near the closed smelter to discuss the research.
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.
"As the report that will be released Monday will substantiate, the existing fish consumption advisory for mercury is sufficient to protect the public health against the concentration of PCBs found in fish studied in High Rock Lake, Falls Reservoir, and Lake Tillery," DHHS spokesman Ricky Diaz said.
Polychlorinated biphenyls, or 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 power 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 defunct aluminum 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.