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Ecosystem Recovery Following Selenium Contamination in a Freshwater Reservoir

Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1006/eesa.1996.1515
  • Biology
  • Ecology


Abstract Belews Lake, North Carolina, was contaminated by selenium in wastewater released from a coal-fired electric generating facility during 1974–1985. Selenium bioaccumulated in aquatic food chains and caused severe reproductive failure and teratogenic deformities in fish. Beginning in 1986, the electric utility company changed its ash disposal practices and selenium-laden wastewater no longer entered the lake. A survey of selenium present in the water, sediments, benthic invertebrates, fish, and aquatic birds was conducted in 1996. Concentrations were compared to pre-1986 levels to determine how much change occurred during the decade since selenium inputs stopped. The data were also examined using a hazard assessment protocol to determine if ecosystem-level hazards to fish and aquatic birds had changed as well. Results reveal that waterborne selenium fell from a peak of 20 μg/liter before 1986, to <1 μg/liter in 1996; concentrations in biota were 85–95% lower in 1996. Hazard ratings indicate that high hazard existed prior to 1986 and that moderate hazard is still present, primarily due to selenium in the sediment-detrital food pathway. Concentrations of selenium in sediments have fallen by about 65–75%, but remain sufficiently elevated (1–4 μg/g) to contaminate benthic food organisms of fish and aquatic birds. Field evidence confirmed the validity of the hazard ratings. Developmental abnormalities in young fish indicate that selenium-induced teratogenesis and reproductive impairment are occurring. Moreover, the concentrations of selenium in benthic food organisms are sufficient to cause mortality in young bluegill and other centrarchids because of Winter Stress Syndrome. At the ecosystem level, recovery has been slow. Toxic effects are still evident 10 years after selenium inputs were stopped. The sediment-associated selenium will likely continue to be a significant hazard to fish and aquatic birds for years.

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