Watauga Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby and French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson are pictured in this June 2010 photo during their work to sample water, fish and sediment for contamination on the mainstem of the French Broad River. They discovered that the same heavy metal contamination that polluted the Emory River from the Kingston coal ash spill was also polluting the French Broad.

When the coal ash dam in Kingston, Tenn., burst releasing 1.1 billion gallons of toxic ash into the Clinch and Emory rivers, it awakened our nation to the threat coal ash poses to our communities and environment.

Watauga Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby was one of the first people on the scene of the spill. “It was the most devastating environmental disaster I have ever worked in my 14-year career as a Riverkeeper,” said Lisenby, who became a Western North Carolina Alliance staff member earlier this year.

This spill heightened the threat of coal ash and the common practice of piling ash containing toxic heavy metals into unlined holes in the ground behind earthen dams, which most often loom over rivers or lakes.

Because North Carolina is home to so many high hazard coal ash dams, Lisenby started working with other N.C. Riverkeepers to investigate the threat that coal ash might pose for our waterways.

One of Lisenby’s first contacts was Hartwell Carson, the French Broad Riverkeeper, because of the threat coal ash poses for the French Broad River. Carson knew that two of the nation’s 47 high-hazard coal ash dams loom over the French Broad River and Interstate 26, which led him to further investigate threats that coal ash poses to human health and the environment.

The issue resonated with him so greatly that he felt the Riverkeeper program needed a home at a grassroots organization that had a history of advocacy and of taking on – and defeating – monumental environmental threats.

In 2010, both Carson and the Western North Carolina Alliance agreed that he belonged on its team, which has worked for 30 years to protect this region’s mountains, rivers and forests.

Since 1982, WNCA has led the fight to stop clear cutting in the National Forest, worked to pass the Clean Smokestacks Act, and was a leader in the successful battle to stop a nuclear waste dump from locating in Buncombe County. It was the perfect place for Carson to continue his work to raise awareness of the threat that coal ash poses to the French Broad River and our region’s health and environment.

In June 2010, Lisenby and Carson set out together to verify the impact of the coal ash ponds in Asheville by sampling the water, fish and sediment that were being impacted from the heavy metal discharge into the French Broad River.

“Sure enough, we found the same kind of heavy metal contamination that polluted the Emory River from the Kingston coal ash spill was also polluting the French Broad” Lisenby said.

Their sampling revealed that high levels of pollutants, including arsenic, were lurking in the sediment and being directly discharged into the river.

Data taken directly from Progress Energy and verified by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources also raised the alarm that the groundwater around the ash lagoons are being consistently impacted by a slew of toxic heavy metals including boron, chromium, iron, manganese, selenium and thallium – some in excess of 140 times what the state of North Carolina says is safe for groundwater.

The EPA has promised to regulate coal ash, but have continued to delay a rule. Progress Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Carolinas have confirmed contamination from older coal ash waste ponds at 14 of their facilities across the state, but have yet to push for cleanup.

Because of this inaction and the magnitude of the crisis, the Western North Carolina Alliance reached out to key partners to address the human health and environment threats coal ash poses for the Asheville area and the state as a whole.

To accomplish the objectives of protecting human health and the French Broad River, the Southern Environmental Law Center on Oct. 10 filed a motion for declaratory ruling with the N.C. Environmental Management Commission on behalf of the Western North Carolina Alliance, the Waterkeeper Alliance, the Cape Fear River Watch and the Sierra Club, demanding that Progress and Duke clean up groundwater that has been contaminated by the toxic substances leaking from their unlined coal ash lagoons.

Understanding the only permanent solution to eliminating coal ash pollution is to stop burning coal, the Western North Carolina Alliance recently joined Asheville Beyond Coal, a coalition of local groups starting a conversation on how we can retire our dirty coal plant and move WNC toward a clean and safe energy future through energy efficiency efforts, as well as innovative, homegrown solutions.

“Instead of blowing up mountains, burying streams and poisoning our air and water, let’s look for a better way,” Carson said. “Unfortunately, entrenched interests like Progress Energy and Duke Energy are not going to take this step voluntarily. They must hear from all of us that our community embraces a future for the French Broad River as a world-class recreation destination – and that we no longer want to see it used as a dumping ground for toxic coal ash.”