Green Scene: Environmental antacid

Never-green forest: Many of the trees on Mount Mitchell’s upper slopes have fallen victim to a combination of acid rain and pests. photo by Bill Rhodes
Never-green forest: Many of the trees on Mount Mitchell’s upper slopes have fallen victim to a combination of acid rain and pests. photo by Bill Rhodes

The cloud of acid rain that's been hovering over Western North Carolina for decades may turn out to have a silver lining after all.

A seven-year lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority ended in a negotiated settlement last June. In 2004, North Carolina joined Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee in suing TVA over air pollution emitted by its coal-fired power plants. The settlement consolidates complaints filed by environmental groups over the last two decades asserting that the federally owned corporation had failed to control emissions of greenhouse gases and particulate matter. Besides endangering human health and the environment, this was a contributing factor in those states running afoul of federal clean-air requirements.

In December, the North Carolina Energy Office held public meetings in Murphy, Waynesville and Boone, seeking input on how to spend the state’s $11.2 million share.

The money, which will be received in installments over the next five years, will support energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects chosen by the state. Preference will be given to projects in WNC, where most of the North Carolina impact of TVA’s emissions is felt.

Examples of projects that might be funded include solar and geothermal building installations; wind- or solar-energy production facilities; projects that reduce motor vehicle miles traveled and idling time; and energy-conservation efforts in both new and existing structures, including efficient lighting, appliances, weatherization and similar measures meeting Energy Star or LEED standards.

Acid rain is created when fossil fuels are burned to produce electricity or power vehicles. Airborne pollutants such as sulfur dioxide combine with water to produce sulfuric acid. And the fine particles coal-burning power plants release can lead to increased respiratory illness and premature death when people inhale them.

Meanwhile, the clouds that form over our high peaks are abnormally acidic. Rime ice (clouds frozen on trees) has been measured at a pH of 2.1 at Grandfather Mountain, placing it somewhere between the acidity of lemon juice and battery acid. Such conditions render local streams and forests more vulnerable to other environmental stresses and can produce the kind of general die-off clearly visible at Mount Mitchell State Park.

TVA has agreed to invest up to $5 billion to clean up 11 coal-fired power plants in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee whose emissions affect Western North Carolina’s air quality. The agency will install new or upgraded pollution controls to reduce smog and acid-rain-forming emissions by more than two-thirds. In addition, the agency must spend $350 million on clean-energy projects, including North Carolina’s $11.2 million.

Nearly 200 people attended the December meetings, according to Assistant Secretary for Energy Jonathan Williams. “There’s no shortage of good ideas, motivation or opportunities to put those funds to good use,” Williams wrote. The state, he noted, had heard from “a broad cross section of citizens who offered their thoughts on how best to do lasting good.”

Based on that input, the state is now developing a specific spending plan. Seth Effron, communications director for the N.C. Energy Office, says the goal is to boost local programs delivering high-impact, long-term air-quality improvements. One possibility being considered is establishing a trust fund that would generate money to support future clean-air initiatives.

Meanwhile, the state is also eyeing efforts such as Green Opportunities, which has a track record of promoting conservation and clean energy. The Asheville-based program teaches at-risk youth how to install energy-efficiency technologies, creating jobs while improving local homes and commercial buildings.

Maggie Ullman, the city of Asheville’s energy coordinator, met with state officials recently to discuss establishing a revolving loan fund that would finance green home improvements that reduce electricity consumption. The settlement money would leverage additional funding to offer Ashevilleans low-cost loans.

And over at the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, Patrick Harper is promoting Evolve Energy, a partnership between business and community leaders that aims to support green work-force development and entrepreneurial efforts, leveraging and augmenting existing regional assets.

Whichever projects eventually get funded, however, the settlement’s impact on WNC will extend far beyond North Carolina’s $11.2 million. TVA’s multibillion-dollar power-plant cleanup will significantly improve local air quality; the agency will also spend about $290 million on yet-to-be defined environmental cleanup projects within its service area.

Environmental groups say the settlement has been a long time coming. “Coal-fired power plants are among the biggest sources of air pollution humans have ever devised,” says attorney John Suttles of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We need to abandon this outdated, inefficient technology. We’re starting to move in a much better direction: This is a big deal.”

— Susan Andrew can be reached at sandrew@mountainx.com.

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