As I guided a group of paddlers 117 miles down the French Broad River over nine days last summer, we passed dozens of boaters, fishermen, tubers, swimmers and other folks out enjoying the river’s beauty. Our trip marked a watershed moment: the opening of the Western North Carolina Alliance’s French Broad River Paddle Trail, whose backcountry camping sites link more than 140 river miles.
The vision for the paddle trail was born in explorations of the river from its meandering headwaters down to where it tumbles through national forest land as mountains tower above. Built with the input and sweat of hundreds of volunteers backed by local businesses such as REI and Parsec Financial, the new trail is changing the face of the French Broad.
Where once the river conjured images of being “too thick to drink and too thin to plow,” it now supports a thriving recreational scene. In the not-too-distant past, I could have the river to myself almost any day of the week. Now those images of industrial waste have been replaced by frequent sightings of standup paddleboarders, canoers, kayakers and people out fishing.
The French Broad’s growing reputation as a superb recreation destination is well-deserved. The river also directly supports hundreds of local jobs while serving as the community’s critical lifeline.
But our work isn’t done.
Just south of Asheville, where the river widens and quickens its pace, our group of paddlers was greeted by a harsh reality as we stared up at Progress Energy’s smokestacks. Thanks to North Carolina’s Clean Smokestacks Act, these scrubbed stacks no longer spew toxic coal ash, as their predecessors did — but they don’t magically dispose of it either.
Instead, the coal ash — which contains arsenic, mercury and a slew of toxic heavy metals — is sluiced into two lagoons from which many of those metals leach into the groundwater and pollute the French Broad.
Despite years’ worth of data showing a consistent pattern of heavy metals migrating from the ponds toward the French Broad, neither the Environmental Protection Agency, the state nor Progress Energy has a cleanup plan in place. And, until now, there’s been no thought about how to move Asheville beyond coal and toward a clean-energy future.
After a coal-ash dam burst in eastern Tennessee in 2008, releasing 1.1 billion gallons of toxic ash into the Clinch and Emory rivers, the EPA proposed two possible standards for handling coal ash. But thanks to intense pressure from coal and other corporate interests, the agency has consistently delayed implementing such a rule.
Because the EPA has refused to act, the WNC Alliance and its partners at the Southern Environmental Law Center and Sierra Club have filed suit to challenge the state’s cleanup process and force Progress Energy to clean up the illegal pollution from its coal-ash ponds, which are dumping toxic heavy metals such as boron and manganese directly into the French Broad.
Sadly, even as the EPA has stalled on taking action to protect the public from this toxic waste, Congress has used the delay to advance dangerous measures that would further compromise public health and delay the cleanup of coal ash.
During the last Congress, the House of Representatives passed a transportation bill containing an amendment that would have stripped the EPA of the authority to regulate coal ash, handing off that power to the states — which haven’t acted to protect human health and the environment from toxic coal ash during the last 50 years.
We must find a better way to meet our energy needs than blowing up mountains and burying streams to get the coal that these power plants burn, poisoning our air, water and communities and producing toxic ash in the process.
But entrenched interests such as Progress Energy aren’t going to take that step voluntarily. They need to hear from everyone that we will no longer stand for seeing the French Broad River used as a dumping ground (see box, “Sounding Off”). They need to see that our community fully embraces the river’s new future as a world-class recreation destination.
— French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson works for the Western North Carolina Alliance, a grass-roots group promoting livable communities and environmental protection. He can be reached at 258-8737 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.