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‘Part of history’: Canary Coalition dissolves after 20 years

Relay for Clean Air cyclists gather at Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway at midnight for the August 2005 race. Donated photo Relay for Clean Air cyclists gather at Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway at midnight for the August 2005 race. Donated photo

After 20 years at the forefront of clean air efforts in Western North Carolina, The Canary Coalition is no more. 

“I’m not bitter about it at all,” said Avram Friedman, who founded the organization in 1999 and served as its executive director until retiring in December. “I’m grateful that they tried, but at this point The Canary Coalition has served its purpose. I think we’ve made an impact, and now it’s time for the younger generation to take hold.”

When Friedman retired at the end of the year, he felt confident that the organization’s younger membership would carry The Canary Coalition’s mission into the future. That confidence may have been well placed, but it couldn’t take into account the impact that a virus then in the process of devastating China would have on every facet of American life as 2020 unfolded. 

“We lost a big contributor when Avram decided to retire, and we had hoped to do a lot of fundraising and attending events,” said Lauren Baxley, co-chair of the Canary Coalition at the time it dissolved. “We’d signed up for tables at various things that were happening around the area. With COVID that all shut down.”

Down a major donor and stripped of the ability to hold any major fundraising events, the all-volunteer board couldn’t see a path to stability, said Baxley, and the 501c3 is now in the process of being dissolved. 

“It’s really a shame,” she said. “It broke our hearts, but we didn’t see a clear way we could go forward.”

 

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Former N.C. Rep. Phil Haire hands Avram Friedman one of the pens then-N.C. Gov. Mike Easley used to sign the Clean Smokestacks Act. Donated photo

 

Cleaning up the air

The Canary Coalition may be gone, but the impact of its 20 years of existence will be felt for decades to come. 

“He never had much money at all to work with and was always just getting by and yet still made some really important changes that have improved the quality of our air and the quality of our lives,” Will Harlan — a former member of The Canary Coalition who is now senior editor at Blue Ridge Outdoors and regional director for The Sierra Club — said of Friedman. “The whole region is indebted to him.”

The organization was born in 1999 after Friedman, then chairman of the Tuckasegee chapter of the Western North Carolina Alliance — an organization that in 2014 participated in a merger that birthed the new nonprofit MountainTrue — heard a presentation on air quality that featured some disturbing news. Jim Renfro, who was then and is still the air quality program manager at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was speaking to a group of 20-30 people gathered for a chapter meeting about recently received data on regional air quality. The picture it painted, Friedman recalled, was pretty grim — especially considering that most everyone there had considered the region to be a relatively pristine and untouched area.

“What he was showing us was that, quite to the contrary, the ozone levels were skyrocketing here, and he compared our air quality to Los Angeles and Atlanta. Plus, we had an issue with sulfur dioxide,” said Friedman. 

Forty years prior, the tower at Clingmans Dome had offered a view stretching 100 miles on a clear day, but by 1999 you could only expect to see for 12 miles, Friedman remembers hearing.

“That was the impetus for starting the Canary Coalition, that presentation, when we realized this was an issue that not only impacted the environment but directly impacted public health,” said Friedman. “We understood that it would appeal to a much broader cross-section of the public to start an organization that focused just on air quality, and not on every other environmental issue — and we were right.”

The cause quickly garnered support from leaders across the region, with the board including members of the Jackson County and Buncombe County commissions, Asheville City Council and the Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. In its initial efforts, the group targeted the source that Renfro had identified as bearing the most responsibility for the region’s worsening air quality — coal-fired power plants. 

The Canary Coalition joined with 12 other environmental organizations to form the N.C. Clean Air Coalition, which still exists today, and together the group developed the white paper that ultimately led to the 2002 passage of the N.C. Clean Smokestacks Act. 

The act’s passage was a “remarkable” victory and a “story of effective political action,” said Friedman, with The Canary Coalition playing a pivotal role in lobbying legislators and preventing the legislation from being watered down as it moved through Raleigh. In the years to come, the law’s importance would become increasingly evident as pollution measures trended downward and visibility steadily increased. 

 

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Steve Earle plays AirAid at the Orange Peel in Asheville following the 2005 Relay for Clean Air. Donated photo 

 

Still work to do 

The law’s passage was a huge victory, but the job was far from done. The Canary Coalition turned its attention to the federal Clean Air Act. 

The Bush administration was in power then, adopting new rules that weakened some standards contained in the act. The Canary Coalition lobbied the state to resist adopting those new, weaker standards in North Carolina. 

“We won some and we lost some” on that front, said Friedman, but by then the regulations surrounding coal-based energy production had become problematic enough for Duke Energy that the company had already started to close some of its coal-fired power plants in favor of natural gas. 

The organization’s next success was securing adoption of a renewable energy portfolio standard, a regulation that required power companies to derive a certain percentage of their energy production from renewable sources. Friedman said he doesn’t consider that accomplishment a pure win, as the measure was included in a 2007 omnibus energy package that included aspects he found to be “very objectionable” and used a broad definition of “renewable source” that included wood, hog waste and chicken carcasses.

However, said Harlan, Friedman’s work was still cutting-edge. 

“I think it was in many ways an organization ahead of its time,” he said. “The work I’m doing for The Sierra Club is very detailed, technical electric sector, energy sector policy work — really boring, wonky stuff that Avram was doing two decades ago, long before any mainstream environmental group was focused on it.”

In the 13 years since, The Canary Coalition has shifted its focus from visible environmental threats like haze and ozone damage to a less visible enemy — climate change. 

While the organization’s initial efforts surrounding the Clean Smokestacks Act enjoyed broad support across the communities of Western North Carolina, the climate change issue is a more polarizing and politically divisive animal. That’s unfortunate, said Friedman. 

“To me it seems like it’s even more universal,” he said. “The climate is definitely something that is impacting all people, but there is, I think, a deliberate effort to confuse the public about how the climate is impacting their lives and even the reality of climate change itself.”

The Canary Coalition has spent the past decade or so working on several different efforts surrounding its focus on climate change, including a bill known as the N.C. Green New Deal, which would adopt on the state level the goals contained in New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ controversial bill, aiming to move North Carolina to 100 percent renewable energy in 10 years. The organization has also been working steadily to gain support for the Efficient and Affordable Energy Rates Bill, which would restructure energy bills in the state so that users using low amounts of energy pay less per watt than users drawing high amounts of energy. The bill has been introduced in every session since 2011.

“Each time we found more sponsors,” said Friedman. “In 2019 we had 20 sponsors — we had 10 in each house.”

The nonprofit has been involved in various other campaigns as well, also debuting a YouTube channel called Mountain Stream TV to cover issues of importance to the Coalition — but it also knew how to have fun, said Harlan. A good example of that is the Relay for Clean Air, held 2004 to 2009, in which dozens of outdoor enthusiasts would run or bike from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Asheville. 

“He just created a really exciting, fun regional organization that a lot of folks enjoyed participating in,” said Harlan. 

The Canary Coalition and all of its efforts are now “a part of history,” said Friedman, and at 70 he’s looking to the next generation to pick up the baton and carry it forward. 

“In that sense it will move on,” he said. “Its work will move on and certainly the positive impact it’s made will move on.”

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