Running against the smog

It wasn’t gold, silver and bronze but asthma and acid rain that motivated more than a dozen Western North Carolinians to run, walk and bike through 100 miles of fog and rain, steep mountain slopes, nighttime gloom and traffic perils to relay a flag from downtown Asheville to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The 24-hour-long Relay for Clean Air — a protest against the damage done to WNC’s environment and residents’ health by air pollution blown into the mountains from out-of-state, coal-fired power plants — began Aug. 20 in City/County Plaza and continued along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the border with Tennessee, ending at Newfound Gap the next day. The relay was sponsored by the Canary Coalition, an Asheville-based nonprofit environmental group.

At the rallies that launched and ended the event, Democratic 11th District congressional candidate Patsy Keever and state legislators Susan Fisher, House District 114, and Joe Sam Queen, Senate District 47, pledged to demand more environmental accountability from the state governors and federal officials who permit those plants to operate.

Canary Coalition Director Avram Friedman joined the politicians and other speakers in telling attendees that besides being one of the most-visited national parks in the country, the Smokies are also the most polluted national park in the United States, thanks in part to smog transported from grandfathered coal-burning power plants in Tennessee and the Ohio River Valley. In those states, emissions are subject to less-stringent controls than the ones the N.C. Clean Smokestacks Act now places on in-state plants. Sulfur compounds from the coal smoke help create acid precipitation and haze that threaten the lush foliage and mountain vistas on which WNC’s $1.2 billion tourist economy depends. The pollution also contributes to a rising regional plague of lung-disease deaths — whose rate here is now the highest in the state — as well as childhood asthma, which has doubled locally in the last 15 years. (Dr. Clay Ballantine, a local physician, notes that Asheville suffers from the highest incidence in the state of lung-disease deaths due to emphysema and pneumonia.)

“My own two daughters, who grew up here in Western North Carolina, suffer from asthma,” noted Keever, “and sadly, they are not alone.”

“It’s time for a representative in Washington who will crack down on out-of-state polluters and ensure the health and well-being of our nation,” declared Keever, who is seeking Rep. Charles Taylor‘s 11th Congressional District seat. She called for a national energy policy that relies on renewable and alternative energy sources, and for “federal legislation that will hold neighboring states accountable when harmful pollution crosses state lines and threatens our air quality.”

“People don’t want to hike and visit our national parks when they can’t see where they’re going, and when the air quality is bad,” added Fisher, who is seeking re-election to the N.C. General Assembly. She pledged to work to ensure that the intent of the Clean Air Smokestacks Act is carried out in this state, and to urge the governor to press other states to pass similar legislation.

“We’ve begun to do our part,” said Fisher. “Now, [I’ll tell] Gov. Easley (assuming he’ll be the governor again): Go over there to Tennessee and talk to those folks. Tell ’em to get on the stick!”

For more information, including more photos of the rally and relay, see www.canarycoalition.org.

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