A look back at the year’s top environmental stories

The past year has been marked by some good and not so good news for the environment in Western North Carolina. This week, we look back at some of the top environmental stories of the year.

On the horizon

Duke started building a new coal-fired power plant near Forest City in Rutherford County this year. The very notion of a new coal plant despite the looming planetary catastrophe known as global warming is among the most depressing stories of the year for environmentalists in Western North Carolina.

College students got arrested for civil disobedience at the site of the coal plant where they broke-in and chained themselves to bulldozers. Protestors also descended on a Bank of America shareholders meeting in Charlotte, who are culpable for their role in funding new coal plants. And yet another entourage picketed outside the Asheville office of the N.C. Division of Air Quality, targeted for issuing the air pollution permits to Duke to build the plant.

The Canary Coalition organized a weekly energy boycott encouraging people to turn off their lights for 15 minutes every Sunday night at 9 p.m. hoping to teach Duke a lesson about the power of consumers.

Meanwhile, environmental groups took to the courts to try to stop the new coal plant, or at least make it comply with tougher air standards. A federal court sided with environmental groups’ assertion that Duke was dodging mercury emission standards required under the Clean Air Act. This sent both Duke and the Division of Air Quality back to the drawing board to devise more stringent pollution requirements on toxic substances like mercury, triggering a new round of public hearings in early 2009.

Also on the air front, Canton schools were pinpointed for being exposed to some of the worst air quality in the nation. Students going to school in the shadow of Canton’s paper mill, Evergreen Packaging, are likely exposed to pollutants from the coal-fired boilers operated by the mill.

Watch that water

Speaking of mercury fallout from coal plants, news broke this year that people should watch their intake of certain fish from mountain lakes. Larger species of fish in mountain lakes have unsafe levels of mercury and should be avoided by children and pregnant women and adults should limit they amount they consume.

Samples were taken of walleye on Fontana and Santeetlah lakes, but the results likely apply to all large fish species in all mountain lakes, according to state water quality scientists.

Another not so cheery story for water quality was the revelation that a popular swimming, fishing and wading spot on the Tuckasegee River in Dillsboro is contaminated with high levels of fecal coliform deemed unsafe for extended human contact. The contaminated area, the confluence of the Tuck and Scotts Creek, is also where commercial raft companies start their trips.

Interestingly, the state had failed to inform the public of the water contamination issues until first prodded by the media, namely by The Smoky Mountain News.

Alternative energy

At last a good news story for the environment. Progress Energy sanctioned a giant solar farm to be constructed on an old landfill site in Canton. The $8 million solar farm will make enough electricity to power 1,200 homes. Progress was spurred to pursue the clean power thanks to a new state law requiring them to do so.

Meanwhile, clean fuels continue to catch on. Haywood Community College started making its own biodiesel. The operation doubles as a demo for people to see how it’s done. HCC also adds a biodiesel component to its auto mechanic courses.

Biodiesel got so popular that Jackson County killed plans to make its own biodiesel because the main ingredient — used oil from restaurants — was already all claimed.

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