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A series of stories about the Yadkin River and Alcoa's fight to keep control.

Dispute over Badin Lake contamination leaves fishers in dark

The Yadkin River dams once supplied power to Alcoa's smelter on Badin Lake.
Julie Rose
Alcoa's now-defunct aluminum smelter looms over the southwestern shore of Badin Lake. hspace=4

The aluminum company Alcoa is still fighting for a new 50-year license to control dams on the Yadkin River. It's mounted an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign to counter opponents like Governor Perdue and Stanly County commissioners. Part of the debate focuses on contamination of fish at Badin Lake. WFAE's Julie Rose reports: 

Badin Lake has been popular for swimming and fishing nearly 100 years since Alcoa dammed the Yadkin River to start smelting aluminum. It's about an hour east of Charlotte next to the small town of Badin, where Jimmy Dick grew up.

"Just to the left's the old boat landing," says Dick, motoring slowly around the southern inlet of Badin Lake on his pontoon boat. Alcoa's now-defunct smelter looms behind. "I swam in this swimming hole from the time I was in diapers on up," says Dick. "That was a cesspool over there, and there was a pipe running under this road. Tar balls used to pop up. We called 'em turtles. Bloop one'd pop up. Bloop, another one'd pop up. We'd throw 'em at each other as kids. It was just like tar getting on us and and the only way our parents could get it off was kerosene. That was in the '50s."

Dick says the stuff itched like crazy and probably contained chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which were commonly used in lubricants for heavy-duty electrical equipment like the transformers in Alcoa's smelter. In the 1970s, the U.S. banned PCBs when they were discovered to cause skin conditions, birth defects and even cancer. But Dick cuts Alcoa some slack.

"In their defense, nobody knew that was wrong," says Dick. "But once you found out it was wrong, hiding and covering it up, that is wrong."

Alcoa has acknowledged numerous toxic dump sites around Badin Lake, which it works with state regulators to keep contained. But the lake itself is a different story. Alcoa says it never disposed of waste in the lake. However, the state department of health recently tested fish there and found high levels of PCBs in catfish and largemouth bass.

The state says it can't link the PCBs to any source, but sitting on his boat in the shadow of Alcoa's old smelter, Jimmy Dick has no doubt. "Look at what's sitting over there," says Dick. "It's been there 90 years. We know there's a high PCB byproduct in the manufacturing process. Why are we even asking that question?"

Not so fast, says Alcoa's Gene Ellis. "We think this is more of a worldwide phenomenon, because there are so many sources up stream," he says. "It's just as likely the PCBs came from those sources too."

The EPA has tested fish across the country and confirmed PCBs are common. It found levels in a few lakes in North Carolina that were even higher than Badin Lake. But the state needs to do its own study before issuing an advisory.

Alcoa is appealing the Badin Lake decision.

"It essentially held Badin Lake to a different standard than other lakes in North Carolina," says Ellis.

The other reason Alcoa wants the advisory overturned is that opponents including Stanly County and the Yadkin Riverkeeper are using it in their fight to stop Alcoa from getting a new license on the river.

Stanly County actually requested the fish study in Badin Lake and helped foot the bill. Dr. Doug Campbell of the North Carolina Division of Public Health says the Badin Lake was more sophisticated because of new technology. But he disagrees that it's unfair.

"We weren't trying to point the blame at anybody," says Dr. Campbell. "We were trying to find out if eating fish in the lake posed a health risk." They found that while only small amounts of PCBs have been detected in the soil of Badin Lake, they are at dangerous levels in catfish and largemouth bass. That's because PCBs get more concentrated as they move up the food chain. The state says pregnant women and children should not eat catfish and largemouth bass from Badin Lake at all. Everyone else should stick to just once-a-week. That advisory came out six months ago, but today not a single warning sign is posted at the lake. And people are eating the fish.

Catherin Sorto's family has fired up the grill. Her mom's ankle deep in the lake, fishing for dinner. "We like to fish with the family, have a little cookout here. We have a great time, it's really relaxing," says Sorto, pointing to a bucket of fish the family's caught. She's alarmed to hear about the PCB warning.

State health officials say Alcoa's appeal of the advisory slowed things down. They've finally decided to go ahead and start posting signs on the lake anyway. But, for environmentalists like Yadkin Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks, the warning signs have just begun. "It's just important in terms of alerting the public that women and children should not be eating Alcoa's PCB fish out of this lake. So that's a first step. But there's a much bigger step that needs to happen here. You know, direct action by regulatory agencies to force this company to take responsibility." Naujoks says that will probably take a lawsuit. And it's one he's prepared to bring.