Every year for the last five years, a ribbon of runners, bikers and walkers has navigated a 100-mile route from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park all the way to downtown Asheville. More civil-rights march than sporting event, the Relay for Clean Air was created as a protest against poor air quality in the park and greater Southern Appalachian region. Now in its fifth year, the event—organized by The Canary Coalition, a Sylva-based nonprofit—will be held over the course of 12 hours on Saturday, Aug. 23.
“The Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway are the most-visited and the most-polluted national parks in the United States, and therefore stand as a great symbol of the damage resulting from misguided energy and transportation policies that poison our air and cause climate change,” says Avram Friedman, the group’s executive director. “The utility industry plans to build more coal-burning power plants that will result in ever-increasing damage to our health and to the ecosystem. State and federal regulators are going along with the industry, committing us to another half-century of childhood asthma, mercury toxicity, acid rain, high ozone levels, excess nitrogen deposition and greenhouse-gas production.”
The procession against pollution will start at 6:15 a.m. on Aug. 23, at Newfound Gap in the Smokies. The trip’s 38 legs range from one to 15 miles to accommodate walkers, bikers and runners at all skill levels. And it’s a relay in the true sense: A “clean air” flag is passed from one segment to the next. In past years, says Friedman, some 70 people have taken part.
The slogan for this year’s relay is “Stop Cliffside!” The combined 800-megawatt, coal-fired units that will be added to Duke Energy’s Cliffside power plant in Rutherford County have been a source of controversy—including several lawsuits—since the North Carolina Division of Air Quality issued a construction permit back in January.
“Duke Energy wants to spend $2.3 billion of ratepayers’ money to build its new Cliffside plant in Rutherford County,” says Friedman. “This has to stop now. Those financial resources need to be used instead to transform our current system into a renewable, distributed and efficient energy system. We have a responsibility to ourselves and toward future generations to address these issues now.”
This year, the Relay For Clean Air will be captured on film. For the past year, local filmmaker Duncan St. Clair has been collaborating on a documentary about air pollution in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and he plans to use some footage from the relay in the final cut. “I used to be a ranger [in the Smokies],” he explains. “And that’s when I began to learn about the park. But it’s hard to learn about the park and not learn about the pollution.”
In years past, notes St. Clair, it was possible to see seven states from certain ridgelines in the Smokies on exceptionally clear days. But the haze that now blankets the area has made that long-range view highly unlikely. “Here you have a park that’s been built on the fact that you can see these amazing views,” he observes. “You go out West and you can see for miles and miles, but here you can’t.”
The national park has been a focus of attention recently (see “How Little We Know” elsewhere in this issue), partly because air-modeling studies charting the effects of smog on the park were filed as exhibits in North Carolina’s landmark lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority (see “Downwind,” July 23 Xpress). Straddling the border between the two states, the popular park is one of the areas most affected by emissions from TVA’s system of coal-fired power plants. Meanwhile, overall air quality in the region has worsened this summer due to higher ozone concentrations.
The Relay for Clean Air will culminate in a press conference at 8:30 p.m. near the French Broad Food Co-op on Biltmore Avenue in downtown Asheville, followed by a live performance by Soul Society, a local band. The relay is free and open to the public, but registration is required. For details, visit www.canarycoalition.org.