State Data Reveals PCB Contamination in Yadkin River Spans 50 Miles through Alcoa Project

Prior to two public hearings being held next week by NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR), Yadkin Riverkeeper Inc. has made formal requests for the state to provide PCB fish tissue testing data from last summer, as well as additional testing to appropriately evaluate the full extent of PCBs and other contamination caused by the operation of Alcoa Inc.’s smeltering plant and Alcoa Power Generating Inc’s  (APGI) operations on the Yadkin River.

Two Public Hearings Next Week on Water Quality and Public Health Issues:

  • Monday, May 13 at Morrow Mountain State Park Lodge, Albemarle, NC
  • Tuesday, May 14 at 7 PM at Stanly County Commissioners Meeting Room in Albemarle

In a letter sent on April 29th to Dr. Laura Gerald, State Public Health Director for the NC Division of Public Health by Attorney Ryke Longest from the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic who represents Yadkin Riverkeeper, Longest stated “it is unclear to me why the Department has not acted to protect public health when the data has been in its possession for so long…. Every day in which fish consumption advisories are delayed is another day the public stands unprotected.” 

About the Upcoming Public Hearings on May 13 and 14

NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (NC DENR) public hearing will be held from 6 to 8 PM on Monday, May 13, at the Morrow Mountain State Park Lodge at 49104 Morrow Mountain Road in Albemarle, NC. The public meeting concerns contamination linked to the Alcoa Badin smelter facility and the Yadkin River Sediment and Fish Tissue Study. Representatives from the Divisions of Waste Management, Hazardous Waste Section and Superfund Section will provide information, answer questions, and accept suggestions on remediation. Alcoa has not conducted a comprehensive cleanup of their contamination. 

A second public hearing will be held by NC DENR to address Alcoa’s 401 Water Quality Application on Tuesday, May 14, starting at 7:00PM at the Stanly County Commissioners Meeting Room at 1000 North First Street in Albemarle, NC, 28001. The certification is required as part of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing process that, if approved, would allow for Alcoa to continue operation of the hydroelectric dams at High Rock, Tuckertown, Narrows, and Falls Reservoirs on the Yadkin River in Davie, Davidson, Rowan, Montgomery and Stanly counties. The Division of Water Quality must take final action on the application prior to September 27, 2013.

 “Why the State would host two public hearings on back to back days on so many important public health and water quality issues of this importance is inexcusable,” said Dean Naujoks, the Yadkin Riverkeeper.  “It’s as if NC DENR is purposely discouraging public participation.”

“Both of these hearings are extremely important and the citizens of North Carolina must voice their opinions at both of these meetings,” continued Naujoks. “The reason is that the Final Evaluation Impact Statements from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission contain data from more than five years ago and it appears NC DENR has no plans to address PCB contamination in Alcoa’s 401 Water Quality Certification despite the fact new data reveals far more extensive contamination that previously known. These studies did not look at the environmental impact of reconstructing and operating the Yadkin Project as proposed by Alcoa. For instance, the studies did not evaluate the disproportionate impact of past plant operations on the community of West Badin where 44 Alcoa hazardous waste sites are located. They did not evaluate the impact or movement of PCBs throughout the Yadkin River ecosystem. Our biggest concern is that more recent fish tissue sampling data indicates there is further contamination above the action levels that are considered unsafe by NC Department of Health and Human Services. People are eating these fish every day unaware of the dangers. Fish consumption advisories need to be posted, more testing needs to be done and NC DENR needs to analyze how PCBs, PCB-contaminated sediment and PCB-contaminated fish are moving through the dams downstream through the Yadkin Project and into Lake Tillery.”

The Yadkin Project spans 40 miles from High Rock Lake, through Tucker town Reservoir, Badin Lake and Falls Reservoir. Lake Tillery is located below Falls Reservoir which State data has revealed elevated levels of PCBs in fish tested in Lake Tillery. In January 2012, NC DENR acknowledged in a letter to Yadkin Riverkeeper that Alcoa dumped two PCB-laden capacitors into Falls Reservoir. “One capacitor had ruptured resulting in PCB contamination,” the letter stated. PCBs cause cancer and serious health issues for young children and the developing fetuses of pregnant women. NC DENR recognizes that these carcinogens are in the water and are in the fish. Concerns have been raised that PCBs are more than likely being ingested by anglers unaware of this serious problem.

Tests show dangerously high levels of PCBs in fish from the Yadkin River lake system. Fish-tissue sampling revealed PCB levels that were 100 percent greater than state health standards for safe fish consumption. NC DENR knows about the contamination, and the danger it causes for local citizens. The agency took appropriate steps by posting fish consumption warning signs at the boat ramp in Badin Lake, but has yet to issue fish consumption advisories for Falls Reservoir or Lake Tillery where PCBs have been linked to Alcoa and where the highest levels of PCBs in fish were detected.  State data also indicated PCB contamination in fish tested in High Rock Lake.

In addition to the mobility of contamination, Yadkin Riverkeeper also believes further analysis needs to be done, along with sampling from the Tuckertown Reservoir because it is unknown whether those fish are also contaminated. “Since the fish pass through the dams,” added Naujoks, “it stands to reason that the movement of PCBs through entrainment of contaminated fish should have been studied. With all these gaping holes in their analysis, we are not convinced that Alcoa’s remediation plans will fully ensure that all contamination will be removed. I don’t see how the state could comfortably issue a 401 Water Quality Certification knowing the scope of contamination is much worse than previously believed. More testing still needs to be done. We need the citizens in the Yadkin River basin to come out to hear what NC DENR has to say about their plans to protect public health and ensure that any remediation plan will be successful.”

Additional Background

For 90 years, Alcoa owned and operated an aluminum smelter along the banks the Yadkin River. During that time, cyanide, fluoride, PCBs, PAHs and other toxins, including arsenic, were generated and disposed of through Alcoa’s 13 outfall pipes to Badin Lake. Hazardous materials were also buried throughout Badin at 44 identified locations, which are capped, but not lined. As a result, buried waste continues to contaminate the soil, ground and enter surface water, years after aluminum production has ceased.

In 2009, due to the toxic outputs caused by the smelter, the state posted fish consumption advisories on Badin Lake warning against the dangers of consuming largemouth bass and/or catfish over 6oz. Through vigorous testing, research and evidentiary discovery, it was revealed at trial Alcoa misled state and federal officials, regarding compliance with dissolved oxygen in its 401 Water Quality Certification, which led to the State’s revocation of Alcoa’s 401 Water Quality Certificate in December 2010. 

The State’s most recent PCB fish and sediment testing indicates the Yadkin Hydro Electric Project operated by Alcoa is contaminated—from High Rock Lake down to Lake Tillery. There are currently no plans to address the broad scope of this contamination problem.

Alcoa is still seeking a 401 Water Quality Certificate in order to continue operating the dams on the Yadkin River for the next 50 years.