The Green Scene

Flipping off Cliffside

The North Carolina Division of Air Quality could issue a decision on Duke Energy’s coal-fired Cliffside power plant “any day, or it could it be in a few weeks,” according to agency spokesperson Tom Mather. What is certain, however, is that if the 800-megawatt plant is approved, the increased power generation at the Rutherford County facility will result in more toxic air pollutants, such as mercury and benzene, and double the facility’s current carbon-dioxide emissions.

Canary vs. coal: The Canary Coalition logo.

The approval process has been contentious at every turn. The DAQ received nearly 2,000 comments from the public—the majority of them opposing the plant, according to Mather. When the agency declined to hold public hearings on the plant in Asheville and Charlotte, grassroots activists organized them independently and forwarded hundreds of disapproving remarks. Prominent NASA climatologist James Hansen has publicly expressed opposition to Cliffside. And in December, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Sierra Club urged Gov. Mike Easley to revise or reject Duke’s permit based on the air-quality impact the facility could have on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Yet even the most dedicated environmental activists seem unconvinced that the DAQ would actually turn down Duke’s proposal. “It seems unlikely that they are just going to deny the permit,” says Avram Friedman, executive director of The Canary Coalition, a nonprofit based in Sylva.

Friedman’s group is launching a campaign to stop Cliffside. “It’s really a boycott against the construction of all coal and nuclear power plants,” he explains.

A joint effort with the Mountain Voices Alliance and the Nuclear Information and Resources Service (both based in Asheville), it will begin with a Jan. 20 candlelight vigil in Pritchard Park, starting at 8 p.m. Supporters are being asked to flip off the lights in their homes for 15 minutes at that time, while placing candles or LED lights in their windows in a show of solidarity.

Plans also call for urging people to stop supporting banks and corporations that invest in the construction of new coal and nuclear power plants by withdrawing their money and selling any stock they own. “It’s one thing to protest,” says Friedman. “It’s another to flex the muscle of the consumer.”

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Homegrown Appalachian ethanol?

The fledgling Biofuels Center of North Carolina, which just opened in Oxford, may have far-reaching effects on the development of nonfossil fuels. The center, which opened Jan. 7 with a staff of six, is the first stage of the North Carolina Strategic Plan for Biofuels Leadership, a collaboration involving the N.C. Biotechnology Center, agricultural interests, universities, state government and other sectors.

The ambitious long-range goal, backed by a $5 million grant from the General Assembly, is to create an industry that could provide 600 million gallons per year of locally produced biofuels—about 10 percent of the state’s fuel needs—by 2017. “The real driver behind it is economic,” John Ganzi, the center’s new president, explains. “We, as a state, are amazingly positioned to provide the feedstocks to make it a strong industry,” he says.

The goal, says Ganzi, is to get beyond corn-based ethanol. Instead, producers would look to region-specific feedstocks such as switchgrass or sweet potatoes, timber products, or residual waste from chicken farms. Here in the mountains, this new industry might tap forests for raw material that could be used to make cellulosic ethanol. “In the western region, the potential exists to use wood products that can be harvested in a sustainable fashion,” says Communications Director Norman Smit.

The Dogwood Alliance, an Asheville-based environmental nonprofit, sees wood-based ethanol as a potential threat to Southern forests. “No guidelines have been put in place that determine how the biomass will be harvested for biofuel, opening the gateway to more clear-cutting,” an organization fact sheet states. But a spokesperson said the group was not familiar with the biofuels plan and couldn’t comment on its goals.

The state currently imports almost 100 percent of its liquid fuel, notes Ganzi. “I think there’s really a sense of we need to be a little more independent.”


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