The Green Scene

When Charles Dickens published works such as A Christmas Carol and Hard Times in the mid-1800s, coal loomed large among the world’s energy sources. The smokestacks in Dickens’ tales belched black, toxic smoke. That smoke may be gone or at least reduced today, thanks to better filtering and monitoring. But we still rely on coal, and it still produces pollution, albeit at lower levels. Mars Hill resident Dr. Richard Fireman finds these facts a bit disturbing.

Mercurial protesters? Environmental groups that staged this October press conference won their day in court, convincing a federal judge that Duke Energy must undergo a state review regarding mercury and other toxic emissions from its new Cliffside facility.
Photo by Margaret Williams

“We’re producing electricity in the 21st century with technology from the 19th century,” the retired emergency-room doctor remarks. In North Carolina, more than half our electricity comes from coal-fired plants, says Fireman, a member of North Carolina Interfaith Power and Light, a faith-based environmental group. Convinced that there’s no such thing as “clean coal” and that it poses a serious threat to both human and environmental health, Fireman argues that we should stop building new coal-fired plants and move toward green technologies, conservation and energy efficiency. Deeming this a moral mandate, Fireman declares, “We can be fossil-fuel free by 2050.”

Recent state and national developments may help.

On Dec. 2, U.S. District Judge Lacy H. Thornburg ruled that Duke Energy must meet federal Clean Air Act requirements for controlling the pollution emitted by the 800-megawatt addition to its coal-fired facility at the Cliffside Steam Plant in Rutherford County. (See Xpress blog post, “Judge Rules Against Duke Energy’s Cliffside Plant.”) A coalition of regional and national environmental groups, the judge noted, had challenged “the legality of [Duke’s] failure and refusal to participate in a” review process that would evaluate, primarily, how well the new unit reduces such toxic emissions as mercury. A 2004 Environmental Protection Agency report concluded, “Even at very low levels, mercury interferes with the development of the nervous system, especially during prenatal development and in early childhood.”

Duke immediately appealed Thornburg’s ruling. The company received a state permit for Cliffside back in January, less than a month before a federal appeals-court case determined that all coal-fired power plants permitted after December 2000 must identify the most stringent mercury-control technology available and then meet that level of pollution control. Duke started construction on the multibillion-dollar project, promising to retire several older, smaller units as one way to reduce total toxic emissions. Meanwhile, the environmental coalition stepped up its efforts to derail the project, staging protests, holding press conferences and—earlier this year—filing the civil suit that Thornburg heard in Asheville’s district court.

His judgment calls for the state Division of Air Quality to conduct a review within 60 days to determine the “maximum achievable control technology” for reducing pollution—leaving open the possibility that Duke could be ordered to stop construction.

Meanwhile, the EPA determined last month that its regional office must take carbon-dioxide emissions into account before approving a proposed coal-fired plant in Utah. The finding adheres to a 2007 Supreme Court decision (Massachusetts v. EPA) that determined that such emissions fall under the Clean Air Act’s purview and thus must be regulated.

“We believe [the Utah case] has far-reaching ramifications for [coal-fired] projects, including Cliffside,” says Jim Warren, director of the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network. “It’s pretty clear that plants that are in the permitting-and-construction process are subject to the ruling,” he maintains. Warren is convinced that the Utah case could make it easier to stop or at least slow down any new coal-fired-plant projects in the U.S.

Furthermore, President-Elect Barack Obama‘s incoming administration is expected to enact a new energy policy that would address and clarify some issues, such as how best to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, Warren points out. Obama will also choose a new EPA chief—perhaps Princeton-trained chemical engineer Lisa Jackson, a former commissioner for New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Both Warren and Fireman are also excited by Obama’s call to move forward with green technologies in energy production, such as wind, solar and geothermal systems.

“We have to decarbonize our energy systems,” says Fireman. “We have the technology right now to do it; it just takes the investment and the political will.” That viewpoint, he maintains, is based on both morality and health. Coal and other fossil fuels produce a host of toxic emissions and carbon dioxide, though Duke’s new Cliffside plant will produce lower levels of pollution than the older units. But, says Fireman, “There’s no level of mercury that’s safe in the human body.”

When a patient arrives with a life-threatening illness requiring immediate action, Fireman explains, drawing on his emergency-room experience, it’s wrong to send him home with a Tylenol and tell him to call back the next day. Yet that’s essentially what happens when we fail to take bold steps to reduce carbon emissions and stop emitting mercury and other such toxins, he asserts.

Like the doctor in the ER, says Fireman, “We need to recognize this as a crisis.” And that, he believes, means viewing it in the larger context of both our own and the planet’s health: “We can’t afford to spend more money on coal: It’s going to kill us.”

Fireman cites other momentous changes in modern history: the end of slavery, the end of child labor, the civil-rights movement. “The greatest changes in our culture came from a moral standpoint,” he proclaims, adding, “We need to be bold.”

To view Thornburg’s judgment, go to

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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