CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For 17 years, Calvin Mills has fished at Latta Plantation Park on Mountain Island Lake. He casts his line within eyesight of a sign warning him not to eat certain fish: largemouth bass and catfish.
“I catch and release catfish basically because of the advisory,” Mills said.
One reason the North Carolina Health Department issued the advisory for these fish is mercury.
“Just like four or five years ago, it wasn’t an issue,” said Mills.
Because catfish are bottom feeders and largemouth bass eat smaller fish, mercury builds up in the fish’s tissue. Mercury is a neurotoxin, especially harmful to pregnant women and infants, attacking the developing brains and contributing to learning disabilities.
One source of that mercury is coal-fired power plants. Three of them line the lakes on the Catawba River around Charlotte:
- The massive Marshall Steam Station on N.C. Highway 150, west of Lake Norman.
- The Allen Station in Belmont, along Lake Wylie.
- The Riverbend Station on Mountain Island Lake, the oldest, smallest and dirtiest of the three.
“About 12,667 children have lifelong learning disabilities as the result of mercury exposure in North Carolina,” said Rick Gaskins, the acting Catawba Riverkeeper, quoting the state’s epidemiologist.
But it’s difficult to point to Duke’s coal-fired plants as the source of any particular mercury-related environmental damage.
“The molecules of mercury don’t have a little tag on them saying this one came from the Marshall Steam Station, this one from the TVA, this one from Cliffside,” said Gaskins.
And without a direct link from the coal plants straight to the fish or into human beings, Duke points the blame elsewhere.
“It’s very difficult to determine where the mercury comes from,” said Duke Energy CEO, Jim Rogers. When asked if any mercury in the Catawba River came from nearby Duke coal plants, Rogers said, “I’m not a scientist so I can’t really answer that question.”
State records from the Division of Air Quality show Marshall Steam Station released 51 pounds of mercury in 2010, the last year on record. Allen released 18 pounds and Riverbend 88 pounds.
Riverbend is the only one of the three which was not retrofitted with billions of dollars in “scrubbers” which cut noxious emissions dramatically--including cutting mercury by more than 90%.
The net result is that Duke fires up Riverbend far less often--it burns far less coal and produces far less power than the other two--yet releases more mercury than the other two stations combined.
That’s one reason why neighbors and environmental groups have asked that Duke shut down Riverbend sooner rather than later.
Fifth-grader Anna Behnke from Mountain Island Charter School took her plea personally to Jim Rogers at a recent shareholder meeting. As Rogers lowered the microphone stand so she could reach, Anna read her statement.
“First, we thought the plant was going to close down in 2015 and now we’re hearing 2020,” she said.
Duke has set a tentative date to close Riverbend in three years. “I happen to think Riverbend is a no-brainer,” said Gaskins.
“I think they need to fix it,” said Mills, the fisherman.
Easier said than done. Even after the state implements maximum levels for the release of mercury into the air around the Catawba River, the health advisory against consuming fish is expected to remain.