The Green Scene: Where we’ve been

Year's end is a time for reflection: in this case, looking back over 12 months' worth of Green Scene. Online, the most-viewed story was "Arsenic Found in Stream Near Progress Energy Plant" (Feb. 11). In print, the most recurring topic was the contamination at the old CTS plant on Mills Gap Road — from a public hearing in Skyland hosted by Rep. Heath Shuler to the discovery of extremely high levels of trichloroethylene in a neighboring residential well.

In the news: In December 2008, a catastrophic spill of coal-ash sludge in Tennessee focused attention on similar facilities in North Carolina, such as Progress Energy’s Arden plant, shown here. The EPA subsequently evaluated all such facilities nationwide, saying more information was needed about the older of the Arden plant’s two dams. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Here's a rundown of those and other top stories from 2009.

"Arsenic Found in Stream Near Progress Energy Plant," Feb. 11

Elevated arsenic levels have been found in a preliminary sampling of water and sediment collected downstream from Progress Energy's Skyland power plant and coal-ash pond. A water sample taken from an unnamed French Broad River tributary nearby contained arsenic at slightly above the permissible level for surface waters — and seven times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's limit for drinking water, says Steve Patch, director of UNCA's Environmental Quality Institute. Patch and a research assistant also collected a sediment sample that yielded a more alarming arsenic level of 258 parts per million.

Ironically, five months after collecting the samples and testing the water, Patch learned that the UNCA-based institute would be closed in the wake of a round of statewide budget cuts. Xpress had requested the sampling after the catastrophic failure of a retaining wall near Knoxville, Tenn., highlighted the lack of regulation of toxic coal ash from power plants. On Dec. 22, 2008, some 1 billion gallons of coal sludge flooded at least a dozen homes in a 400-acre area (see Xpress online posts "Coal Slurry for a Tennessee Christmas" and "HuffPo: Arsenic 35 to 300 Times Drinking Water Standard After Tenn. Coal Ash Disaster").

"WWC Students Tackle Climate Change One House at a Time," March 18

In the alternate universe of the graphic novel (and new movie) Watchmen, angst-ridden heroes clad in tights, capes and masks fret about the state of humanity and their place in a sinister world. Warren Wilson College's young weatherization heroes evince no such sentiments, though they do sport safety masks and loads of can-do spirit. During spring break, they've set the ambitious goal of weatherizing five homes in five days. It's all part of the INSULATE! program, which aims to help those area residents who need it most, student coordinator Ian Higgins explains.

"A Well of Discontent: New Findings in the CTS Case," Sept. 9.

Despite lying less than half a mile from a contamination source that's been under investigation since the 1990s, the Bradley family's drinking well had never been tested when David Bradley noticed some folks drilling across the street from his south Asheville home in mid-August. [He] asked the crew to sample his family's 500-foot-deep well. They did, and the results indicated 840 parts per billion of TCE —168 times the 5 ppb that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set as the maximum permissible in drinking water.

Since then, the EPA has added about 50 wells to the list of those regularly tested in an attempt to document the spread of contamination from the former CTS plant. And in a letter to the Bradleys in November, the EPA revealed that a later test had indicated the TCE level in the family's well could be as high as 1,400 ppb (see "The Low-down Slowdown on CTS," Dec. 16).

"Get Smart: Feds Pump Funding Into Smart Grid," Nov. 4

What would it be like to have a "smart meter" that could tell you when it's cheapest to run the clothes dryer, automatically signal the utility company if your power goes out, help you save money and reduce your carbon footprint? About 160,000 Progress Energy customers in the Carolinas and Florida will soon find out. The federal government has awarded the utility $200 million for "smart grid" projects, including system upgrades, electric-vehicle charging stations and these savvy meters. … The company is kicking in about $300 million; Duke Energy is receiving a similar grant.

"The 'smart grid' is really a catch phrase for modernizing the electrical-grid system from what is, essentially, 19th-century technology to something that's more 21st Century," explains local alt-energy expert Ned Doyle.

"Cutting Through the Hype on Climate Change," March 11

"Communicating accurate climate-change information is one of the most challenging issues we face in the scientific world," says Rick Borchelt, communications director for the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University. He spoke in Asheville on March 17, and prior to the event, he told Xpress, "Most of us do not have a basic understanding of how climate-change science works, or of how we have arrived at this place where the topic … is so divisive."

Send your environmental news to mvwilliams@mountainx.com, or call 251-1333, ext. 152.

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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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