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Don’t eat the fish: Scientist says Broad River being poisoned by American Zinc

By KIMBERLY KING

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    RUTHERFORD COUNTY, North Carolina (WLOS) — An Appalachian State scientist has a warning about the water quality of the Broad River.

Dr. Shea Tuberty, an Appalachian State aquatic eco-toxicologist and biologist, is challenging regulators with his research on fish that were caught downstream from the American Zinc plant near Forest City.

American Zinc, which deals with extremely hazardous metals that can potentially cause cancer, is under investigation by the EPA. The plant is permitted to release 980,000 gallons of waste water a day into the Broad River.

Tuberty and his graduate students have been sampling fish upstream and downstream from American Zinc. He thinks state officials are not doing nearly enough to protect the waterway from pollutants coming from the plant.

Tuberty and his team of biology students use probes to test at American Zinc’s wastewater pipe.

During a recent release of wastewater from the plant, the meter measured salt levels so high fresh-water fish couldn’t live nearby or swim within a half-mile, Tuberty said.

“This is why we don’t catch fish here,” Tuberty said.

But the saltiness is just one part of the his concerns about American Zinc, concerns local residents also have.

People are afraid to eat fish caught in the river.

Fisherman Joe Buchanan said he doesn’t eat fish caught downstream from the plant.

“I’m afraid they’re poison,” Buchanan said.

The investigation Tuberty said he is continuing his investigation because of the elevated levels of toxic metals found in fish downstream from the plant.

“My first priority is to understand how much of the river is contaminated with these toxic metals,” Tuberty said. “The things that concerned us initially were the lead levels.”

CDC guidelines state “eating food or drinking water that contains lead can cause health risks in almost every organ.”

However, the EPA states it can’t provide a toxic level for lead because of difficulty identifying the threshold needed to develop a level, including in fish.

North Carolina has had a separate statewide fish consumption advisory since 2008 warning of mercury levels in fish. Tuberty thinks there should be signs around waterways, including the Broad, warning of fish advisories.

“As an academic that teaches toxicology, I guarantee you every student I’ve ever had expects DEQ and EPA to be more protective,” Tuberty said. “I do know they’re aware that there’s toxins coming out of that place and it’s getting in the river. Now, they know it’s getting in the fish because I’ve told them. Yet, they still have done nothing.”

Tuberty said he made North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality staff aware of the problem during a 2019 public community meeting. A DEQ spokeswoman said staff aren’t aware of Tuberty’s research.

Testing the river and the fish To test the fish, Tuberty freeze dries them. Using an instrument called an ICP, the professor used European Union guidelines to test 74 fish, taking about 10 at each site, considered the research standard to minimize aquatic impact.

A half-mile down from American Zinc, all 15 fish tested were safe, Tuberty said. But at a second site, another four-tenths-of-a-mile down from the plant, all nine fish tested had significant lead exceedances, he said.

Tuberty said the first site with faster currents can help to push metals downstream. Of 40 fish tested at four downstream sites, the average lead level was four times the EU consumption exceedance limit, with the highest level measured at 3.890 parts per million, which he said is 13 times the consumption limit.

Of all fish tested downstream from American Zinc, about 50% exceeded lead limits compared to just 5% upstream, Tuberty said.

Tuberty said he inadvertently stumbled on his findings in 2018 when he sampled fish around Duke Energy’s coal plant, which is about 6 miles downstream from American Zinc.

“When we were upstream in the river looking for reference samples, we realized later those fish collected upstream of the Duke power plant were, actually, more contaminated with things like lead and cadmium than the samples we took at the Duke power plant, which surprised us,” Tuberty said.

Master’s degree student Hannah Woodburn analyzed fish from multiple sites around American Zinc that also included a section of river downstream from Duke, where researchers also found fish exceeding lead levels.

“There should be a sign at every single public access on the Broad River letting people know,” Woodburn said.

A Duke spokeswoman said “extensive tests” show “dissolved lead that can be taken in by aquatic organisms is below detection levels.”

“On the rare occasions when very low lead levels are detected, the levels are similar to upstream of our facilities, which indicates the low levels are not from our operations but elsewhere in the watershed. It’s critical to note lead is not usually associated with coal and coal ash. Extensive testing confirms conditions remain healthy for aquatic life and human use,” the Duke spokesperson said.

Ongoing pollution North Carolina Water Quality Division head Daniel Smith has repeatedly declined News 13 requests for an on-camera interview to respond to Tuberty’s concerns about American Zinc, which has been cited at least 42 times by the state for operational violations since 2014.

DEQ spokeswoman Anna Guerney said via email there’s no reason for a fish advisory for lead. The division’s fish tests in the Broad River in 2019 found no concerning lead levels but did detect 10 other metals, including arsenic, aluminum, chromium, copper, mercury, nickel and zinc.

Tuberty said eating one or two fish won’t hurt anyone, but consistent consumption might.

“We bring it back to risk. What is the risk of possibly getting sick from eating fish at these levels? It certainly is there,” Tuberty said.

Even if no one eats the fish, Broad River riverkeeper David Caldwell thinks there’s more at stake.

“This is everybody’s river, and it should be fishable, drinkable and swimmable,” Caldwell said.

Tuberty said people swimming and boating on the Broad are safe.

American Zinc officials declined repeated requests for an on-camera interview, stating, “American Zinc Products is a responsible operator of a world-class facility, and we remain committed to a safe and healthy environment for all of our employees and the general community.”

However, the state cited AZP in 2019 for illegally storing 13 million pounds of lead concentrate in Forest City warehouses not equipped to safely handle it.

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