Some of the Alliance staff takes a portrait in April 2012 for a Citizen-Times profile article.

Groups seek to join Duke coal ash lawsuits; Utility critical of bid by environmental groups
Jan. 2014

ASHEVILLE — The Western North Carolina Alliance and six other environmental groups across the state hope to join lawsuits seeking to force Duke Energy to stop pollution from its coal ash ponds.

The Asheville-based organization is particularly concerned about contamination to groundwater and streams at the utility’s power plant on Lake Julian in Buncombe County and the Cliffside plant in Rutherford County.

Representing the seven groups, the Southern Environmental Law Center this week filed motions in state court asking a judge to allow them to weigh in on what should be done to stop releases from the ash ponds.

“Duke’s coal ash pollution is threatening rivers, lakes and drinking water in every part of North Carolina,” said Frank Holleman, an attorney with the law center. “Local groups from around the state have come together to help ensure that the state and Duke Energy take meaningful action to clean up Duke’s illegal coal ash pollution across North Carolina.”

Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said the utility monitors groundwater around its plants to ensure neighbors are safe.

“We have no indication of any off-site groundwater impacts across the state that would pose a health concern for neighbors,” she said. “If we did, we would take steps to resolve it.”

Julie Mayfield, co-director of the WNC Alliance, said the group wants to join the lawsuits brought by state regulators so it can offer advice on potential solutions.

“We have an interest in making sure the state takes strong enforcement action that will protect the rivers and the communities around the plants,” she said. “We bring another set of interests and another set of eyes to the issue.

“Our goal in this is to end the ongoing and illegal pollution from coal ash. We need to find a new way to store the ash if we are going to continue to burn coal.”

David Hurand talks with WNC Alliance Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson about the proposed settlement of the state of North Carolina and Duke Energy  coal ash settlement
July 2013

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources filed the lawsuit last spring. It alleged that Duke Energy coal ash stored at the utilities Asheville power plant and its power plant in Charlotte leaked toxic chemicals into the French Broad River and Mountain Island Lake.   Environmental groups are blasting the proposed settlement which calls for the utility to pay a $99,000 fine and be required to study whether its coal ash storage facilities are threatening the environment.  David Hurand spoke with Western North Carolina Alliance Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson about the proposed settlement.

Changing recreational habits challenge forest service- Smoky Mountain News
March 2013

Josh Kelly, a public lands biologist with the Western North Carolina Alliance — an environmental group based Asheville — said this simple conundrum can make even a statement like “protect wildlife” seem like a unifying cry on the surface. But really it means very different things depending on who’s saying it.

“There’s a lot of public demand for increasing populations of deer and grouse, and they benefit from disturbance such as logging,” Kelly said.

The crux is that there are a lot of other species that have ranges restricted to the Blue Ridge Mountains, Kelly said, and can’t pick up and move to the Piedmont if their old growth tree forest gets cut.

Therefore, Kelly said his organization is pushing the forest service to expand protections against logging, mining and road construction to new areas of the forest that are biologically unique but vulnerable under the current plan.

Currently, he said about 60 percent of the forest is restricted from resource extraction such as mining and logging. But special areas like Corbin Knob in Jackson County and Cliff Ridge in Macon County are not.

“Logging, mining, also road building, threaten these areas,” Kelly said. “If they’re done in the wrong places, they can do a lot of damage.”

Public forest users flock to meeting on plan revision-Hendersonville Times-News
March 2013

Posters set up by the Forest Service to elicit public feedback showed that the forests are maturing, with more 81- to 90-year-old trees in 2012 than in 1991. The amount of shrubby young forest — known as “early successional habitat” — has decreased from 32,000 acres in 1997 to less than 10,000 acres since 2005.

But some conservationists in the audience said the charts are misleading. Ecologist Bob Gale of the WNC Alliance said 1991 was when the “era of unsustainable logging was just coming to an end,” thus skewing the standard by which today’s harvest levels are judged.

“There’s room for early successional habitat out there, but it should happen in places that make sense — 40- to 60-year-old forests that are along existing roads — rather than going into remote, older forests and mucking them up,” Gale said.

Conservation groups target coal ash – Asheville Citizen-Times

January 2013

ASHEVILLE — After documenting a soup of contaminants seeping into the French Broad River from an area coal-fired power plant, conservation groups notified Progress Energy Carolinas of their intent to sue for pollution violations. The utility disputes the environmentalists’ conclusions.

The Southern Environmental Law Center sent a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue on Thursday to Progress Energy Carolinas, a subsidiary of Duke Energy, on behalf of the Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, and Western North Carolina Alliance, saying the electric utility is in violation of the Clean Water Act.

“The Progress Energy power plant dumps toxic heavy metals into unlined holes in the ground alongside the beautiful French Broad River,” French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson said of the utility’s Skyland power plant. “Earthen dams leak, and this outdated and irresponsible disposal system is allowing pollutants to seep into the French Broad River.”

A year ago, Carson and WNC Alliance began sampling water at five locations where they suspected contaminants from the power plant were draining into the river. Last October, conservation groups filed a complaint with the N.C. Environmental Management Commission regarding groundwater contamination by 14 coal-fired power plants across the state. Coal ash is the toxic waste product that remains after coal is burned.

“We knew there were pollution sources from the power plant from groundwater testing, so we thought we should go out and see if these sources of pollution were reaching the river,” Carson said. “We took three rounds of samples and compared those to background sampling and to internal data to see if it was good match to what’s in the coal ash ponds. We did two more rounds of sampling and found it was pretty consistent.”

Sampling at the five locations near the power plant’s coal ash ponds, downstream of the Asheville Airport and upstream of Long Shoals Road, detected a range of coal combustion pollutants, including boron and metals such as cobalt, barium, manganese and nickel at levels significantly higher than should be naturally occurring, Carson said. All are listed as toxic substances by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Evidence found of pollution by Progress Energy into the French Broad River

 April 2012

ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Progress Energy has 60 days to respond to allegations the company violated the Clean Water Act at its Asheville facility. The notice of intent was filed late last week by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of several environmental organizations, after the French Broad Riverkeeper found evidence of toxic substances in the French Broad River.

Samples taken from the river in Asheville include evidence of coal combustion waste, listed as toxic substances by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The waste is believed by conservation groups to be from Progress Energy’s coal ash plant in Asheville.

Hartwell Carson, the French Broad Riverkeeper, took the samples from the historic river and says dumping coal ash in ponds is an outdated practice.

“It’s ancient technology. They basically dig a hole in the ground and they dump toxic materials in the hole and they store it all behind earthen dams.”

Late last week the Southern Environmental Law Center sent a Notice of Intent to Progress Energy Carolinas, giving them 60 days to address the alleged Clean Water Act violations before they file a suit on behalf of several conservation groups.

Progress Energy claims the ash basin seepage is not an illegal discharge and is covered under their state permitting.

The substances found in the water samples include such metals as cobalt, barium, manganese and nickel. They are carcinogenic, and are known to cause asthma, learning disabilities, birth defects and other health problems, according to several environmental studies.

That pollution is believed to originate in the coal ash stored in unlined ponds near the French Broad River. Carson points out that while landfills are required to line their garbage dumps to protect the ground water, coal ash ponds do not have that requirement.

“Your banana peels and your apple cores are regulated much more tightly than coal ash,” the Riverkeeper says. “And that’s partially because of the influence of the coal industry.”

The Asheville Progress Energy plant has two coal ash ponds, built in 1964 and 1982. Ash pond seepage has been documented for at least three decades, according to public records. Progress Energy recently estimated leakage from the older ash pond to be as high as one million gallons a day.

WNCA profiled in the Citizen-Times
 April 2012

ASHEVILLE — It’s not just the occasional fights that break out among the four or five resident dogs in the WNC Alliance offices that complicate Julie Mayfield’s job.

While there is dog hair, toys and slobber to deal with, the real challenge is guiding and guarding the fate of Western North Carolina’s forests, rivers, lakes and land that weighs on Mayfield as executive director of the alliance, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

“Thirty years is a long time for any organization, particularly given the challenging economic times we’ve been in the past few years,” said Mayfield, an environmental attorney who four years ago took over leadership of one of the region’s oldest nonprofit environmental groups.

“The alliance has really come out of it quite well and stronger than we’ve been in a long time. That’s something to celebrate, especially with other environmental groups closing down.” Read more here.

WNCA profiled in the Smoky Mountain News
April 2012

Just in time for its 30th anniversary, the Western North Carolina Alliance one of the region’s most august environmental organizations is promising to reassert itself as a highly visible and prominent force in communities outside of Asheville.

To help fulfill that promise of renewed commitment the WNC Alliance will re-staff its offices in Franklin and Boone. In recent years the group has relied almost solely on volunteers to serve as its visible presence west and north of its Asheville headquarters. This is not to say WNC Alliance hasn’t been present at all in these communities; just less so than in the group’s glory days in the 1980s and 1990s.

WNC Alliance’s beginnings, in fact, are rooted in Macon County. The environmental group was the brainchild of Esther Cunningham, a Franklin resident who became incensed at the proposition that companies might be allowed to mine the national forests for oil and gas.

“She wrote letters, she organized, she spoke at hearings, she learned Forest Service appeal procedure,” said Bill Crawford of Macon County, who was one of the group’s earliest members. Read more here.

Historian Rob Neufeld recounts WNCA’s roots in the Citizen-Times
  April 2012

Twenty-three years ago, April 15, was “Cut the Clearcutting!” day in Asheville. The demonstration and concert highlighted a long campaign to redirect U.S. Forest Service policy. Western North Carolina Alliance the movement’s organizer, just celebrated its 30th anniversary.

Kathryn Newfont, associate professor of history at Mars Hill College, has just published a book, “Blue Ridge Commons,” that tells the story of Cut the Clearcutting! and other successful efforts to wed environmentalism with the economic benefit of shared land.

WNCA, Newfont relates, “decoupled the issue of forest protection from the question of wilderness preservation and hitched it instead to widely shared concerns about the wooded mountain commons.” Read more here.

Josh Kelly publishes a guest commentary in the Citizen-Times
March 2012

Biologist Josh Kelly speaks out about protecting our unique watershed in the Citizen-Times.  Read more here.

Julie Mayfield is featured in Verve magazine
February 2012

WNCA Executive Director Julie Mayfield speaks about how a healthy environment is vital to a healthy economy. See the article here.

Julie Mayfield is featured in May’s Philanthropy Journal
October 30th, 2011

WNCA Executive Director Julie Mayfield speaks about how the economic recession has effected the operation of Western North Carolina Alliance since her arrival in 2008. To read the entire article, click here.

WNCA Featured in State-wide Non-profit Publication
October 30th, 2011

WNCA continues to catch the eye of state-wide organizations. Recently our efforts to collaborate with other Asheville-headquartered environmental groups were noted in the North Carolina Center for Non-profits spring issue, Common Ground. [more]