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Groups ask court to stop use of chemical treatment at Lake Mattamuskeet

Sunset at Lake Mattamuskeet in January 2024.
Josh Sullivan
The sun sets over Lake Mattamuskeet on a January 2024 afternoon.

Conservation groups are asking a federal court to stop the use of a chemical treatment at Lake Mattamuskeet in eastern North Carolina.

The lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of North Carolina, argues the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is violating several national policies with the use of this chemical.

"A bird sanctuary is no place to experiment with a chemical that is toxic to birds," said Ramona McGee, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). "We're asking (USFWS) to put the mission and purpose of this wildlife refuge first, and not turn wild birds into lab rats when there are much better ways available to maintain the health of the lake."

Lake Mattamuskeet is the largest natural freshwater lake in North Carolina. The 40,000-acre lake makes up the majority of the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, which is managed by USFWS.

The lake is centrally located along the Atlantic Flyway, a route migratory birds use to move south for the winter. The refuge is extremely valuable for wintering waterfowl to stop, rest and eat along their journey.

However, since the early 1990s, water quality in the lake has declined, causing harmful algal blooms and leading to the complete loss of submerged aquatic vegetation, one of the main sources of food for migratory birds.

In April, USFWS decided to move forward with a pilot treatment of a chemical called Lake Guard Oxy. The intent is for Lake Guard Oxy to reduce harmful algae blooms, increase water clarity, and increase submerged aquatic vegetation in the lake.

However, a label for Lake Guard Oxy from the Environmental Protection Agency indicates it's toxic to birds.

"In our lawsuit, we are saying that (USFWS) is violating the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as laws regarding the refuge system, by failing to fully consider the impacts of this experimental algaecide, particularly on birds as the prime residents that this national wildlife refuge was established for," said McGee. "We're asking the court to order that (USFWS) go back and do a full environmental review under legally compliant regulations."

SELC filed the lawsuit on May 20 on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club.

In a statement, USFWS said it does not comment on proposed or pending litigation.

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.