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Asheville’s Call to Action: The Beginning of the End for Toxic Coal Ash

By Patrick Cavanaugh, 2012 Red, White and Water intern

It’s hard to miss the Asheville coal-fired power plant as you drive into Lake Julian Park in Arden, N.C. The smokestacks and discolored water surrounding the plant scream of environmental abuse and disfigurement. Our mission was the hidden abuses this plant perpetrates on nearby residents that brought us together specifically to discuss the threat of toxic coal ash.

Thursday, March 22, was more than just a warm welcome to spring, it marked the nineteenth annual World Water Day, a day to focus international attention on the impacts of rapid urban development, industrial consumption and climate change threatening our precious resources.

The “Clean Water Not Coal Ash” rally, hosted by Appalachian Voices, the Western North Carolina Alliance along with several organizations, called attention to the threat posed by coal ash to drinking water and the nation’s rivers. The rally brought out more than 200 residents of all ages from Asheville and surrounding areas demanding something be done about the threat of toxic coal ash to North Carolina’s waterways.

Our message was simple: Keep our precious water clean for current and future generations.

Coal ash is the byproduct of coal burning for energy and over 5.5 million tons of the toxic ash is produced in North Carolina each year. To discard leftovers the utility industry houses it in wet impoundments, which are often unlined and not properly managed.

Coal is often advertised by the energy industry as a cheap energy source but more evidence is emerging to prove that coal’s negative health and environmental impacts outweigh any such benefits. Despite three years of public statements and promises the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s long-planned federal rules to offer basic water protections from coal ash are nowhere in sight and the wait is long overdue.

In January, North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources confirmed what we have known all along, that these ash “ponds” are leeching toxic heavy metals into groundwater. The Asheville ponds in particular are excreting boron, chromium, iron, manganese, sulfates, selenium, and thallium at extraordinary rates, some at 12,000x North Carolina’s maximum exceedance levels. These heavy metals are known to wreak havoc on the central nervous system as well as induce complications in learning capabilities.

Aside from water pollution, the Asheville ponds have a “high hazard” rating from the EPA, meaning if a breach of the pond were to occur, loss of human life is probable.

Amid the thick white cloud from the plant billowing in the distance, community members listened to educational speakers discuss the negative effects of the coal cycle within their communities. French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson, Richard Fireman of N.C. Interfaith Power and Light, Terry Clark of Physicians for Social Responsibility and affected community member Donna Keiser), and local community members discussed what it is like living near the ponds and what it means for the health of surrounding areas.

Tabitha Lunsford

The event wasn’t all gloom and doom for the city of Asheville.  Citizens were able to relax as they listened to sounds of bluegrass performed by Joe Hallock, eat free food, and have a few drinks thanks to the kind people over at Sweetwater Brewing Co. Most citizens in attendance signed the NC Can’t Wait Petition, advancing the clean water movement to protecting our waterways.

Reflecting on the event after some much needed time off, we couldn’t be prouder of what we have achieved. Getting the ball rolling on such an immense topic as ending groundwater contamination from coal pollution is no small feat.

The Clean Water Not Coal Ash rally was a major success, but our work doesn’t end here. As with any environmental battle, it takes a community and a movement to create real and necessary change. This rally did more than just show elected officials, state and federal agencies, as well as Progress Energy, that we care about our right to clean water. It brought a community together and gave all those who participated hope that something can be done to clean up our water.

Clean Water Not Coal Ash Attendees

Thanks to all the organizations that participated in this event including Western North Carolina Alliance, Clean Water for North Carolina, N.C. Interfaith Power and Light, Physicians for Social Responsibility, WENOCA Sierra Club, American Rivers, Asheville PARC, Canary Coalition, Earthjustice, Mountain Voices Alliance, Meet, Act, Talk Affinity Group, N.C. Conservation Network, N.C. WARN, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

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