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The French Broad River Threatened By Toxic Waste

Once referred to as the “Trashy Broad,” today people no longer smell the French Broad River before seeing her. The French Broad now supplies over one million people with drinking water, countless recreational opportunities, and scenic vistas. But the lurking dangers of the unsafe disposal of coal ash threaten the long-term health of the river and the region.

The Beautiful Broad

Her History

If the Southern Appalachian peaks are the soul of Western North Carolina, the French Broad River is the region’s pulse. During the 18th century, industrialization swept the river’s banks and the river’s pollution kept rate with the urban development. By 1951, author Wilma Dykman called the river “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.” She wrote The French Broad, which raised awareness about the polluted river. With the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the river was on its way to becoming the world-class recreation area enjoyed today.

North-Flowing River 

The French Broad is one of the few north-flowing rivers in the country. For 117 miles, the French Broad River flows freely northward from its headwaters in Transylvania County, N.C. There it teems with fish and is wild and untamed.

As the French Broad nears Asheville, the river becomes much wider, and a water-treatment facility built on the river’s banks provides drinking water to the region. On river right, the stacks from Duke Energy’s Asheville coal-fired power plant adjacent to the French Broad can be seen through the trees.

Just downstream of the facility, the river becomes a hotbed for recreational opportunities and riverside tourist destinations. Fishers, swimmers, tubers, and flat water paddlers find plenty of river access. From the two river parks in the Bent Creek area to the six miles of continuous river parks in the city of Asheville, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the river. The parks lining the river’s edge create an urban oasis, interrupted only by the occasional tall building hinting of downtown Asheville.

Tourists and residents alike visit the urban waterfront, where once abandoned industrial warehouses have been transformed into artists’ studios, breweries, and restaurants. The renaissance of the River Arts District, as the area is commonly known, continues with New Belgium Brewing Company’s announcement last year of plans to invest $175 million into building a new beer-making operation in the industrial zone. The plans involve new bike lanes and greenways along with a summer concert series, sure to encourage more people to come enjoy a beer by the riverside.

The Ledges Whitewater Park offers the perfect post-study or after-work paddling destination. Only fifteen minutes from downtown, a series of ledges spread out over about 200 yards of river provides paddlers the opportunity to work out doing attainments up the rapid.

Paddlers looking for a longer stretch of whitewater only have to drive some thirty minutes to Madison County. There the river becomes wilder, winding through Pisgah National Forest. Commercial outfitters and paddlers flock to this area to paddle the Barnard to Hot Springs section. The stretch consists mostly of splashy and fun Class II and Class III rapids, with one Class IV rapid, Frank Bell’s, just before the town of Hot Springs.


The Duke Energy coal-fired power plant sits on a 90-acre complex adjacent to the French Broad River just seven miles downstream of Asheville. The plant has two ponds built in 1964 and 1982 to hold coal ash, the waste left over after coal is burned to generate power. The coal ash mixes with water to form a toxic slurry. The ponds are unlined and earthen dams are used to contain the contamination.

As staff attorney Amelia Burnette of the Southern Environmental Law Center put it: “Wet storage of coal ash waste in unlined ponds causes a slew of problems. Polluted water seeps through the earthen dams into streams, rivers, and groundwater; and these impoundments can suffer from structural problems.” As of now, there’s no reason to stop recreating in the French Broad, but we must take action and address the three major threats posed by wet coal ash storage to ensure that the river stays healthy.

1. Potential Dam Failure 

One only has to look five years back in time to be reminded of the catastrophic risk associated with using earthen dams – a dam could burst. The 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston, Tenn., ash spill devastated the Emory River. When the dam failed, 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry destroyed nearby homes and property. Cleanup efforts are expected to continue into 2014 and cost $1.2 billion.

The Kingston catastrophe isn’t an isolated incident. Three years before the Kingston catastrophe, a similar dam failure on a smaller-scale occurred in Martin’s Creek, Penn. In that accident, the dam released over 100 million gallons of coal ash, contaminating the Oughoughton Creek and Delaware River.

After the Kingston disaster, the EPA sent out inspectors to determine the structural safety of these dams and rated the 1964 Asheville pond as “poor.” Since then, the EPA has upgraded the dam to a “satisfactory” rating.

Wet coal ash storage is untenable in the long term. The Asheville plant, constructed in the 1960s, lacks the advancements of newer plants that use a dry-storage system where coal is stored in lined holes under a secure covering. Outdoor groups are advocating for the EPA to implement strong, enforceable rules to regulate coal ash. In the absence of federal safeguards, state laws govern coal ash. Too often state laws are a cobbled patchwork of inconsistent and confusing laws, difficult to enforce. Some Southeast states have tougher standards for handling household garbage than they do for the disposal of coal ash.

2. Contaminated Groundwater

Storing wet coal ash in unlined ponds causes groundwater contamination, and the groundwater eventually flows into tributaries of the French Broad or directly into the river itself.

Independent samples taken within a two-mile radius of the Asheville plant over the past two years show that the groundwater contains iron, magnesium, and, most troubling, thallium, in levels exceeding health standards. Thallium poses health risks to people and is suspected to cause cancer. Despite the acknowledged contamination, in December 2012 the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission voted to allow the Asheville facility to continuing contaminating groundwater.

3. Leaks Bypassing the On-Site Treatment System

The earthen dams leak, seeping heavy metals and other pollutants found in coal ash into the French Broad. By design, the dams leak in order to avoid the potentially catastrophic safety problem of pressure build-up over time.

Samples taken by the French Broad Riverkeeper showed higher than normal levels of pollutants from coal combustion waste, including boron and metals like cobalt, barium, manganese, and nickel, all listed as toxic substances by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The samples were taken far from where the pollutants are first discharged into the tributaries. Nobody knows the real levels of contamination.


In January 2013, the Southern Environmental Law Center gave Duke Energy a 60-day notice that, if the environmental problems go unaddressed, a lawsuit will be brought pursuant to the Clean Water Act. The legal claim is that Progress is essentially bypassing the standards, conditions, and monitoring required by the Clean Water Act, since the seeps are exiting through the permitted area.

The Clean Water Act requires any entity that plans to discharge a form of wastewater directly into a body of water to receive a federal permit given and enforced by the state. Essentially permits-to-pollute, each permit allows the recipient to discharge a certain amount of pollution daily. Progress moved its discharge point in 2012. Pollutants continue to flow through the seeps, entering the river at points that used to be, but now aren’t, covered by the permit.

In March the state of North Carolina filed a separate lawsuit. The lawsuit stated that, “continued operation of the Asheville Plant in violation of groundwater standards (and state law) without assessing the problem and taking corrective action poses a serious danger to the health, safety, and welfare of the people of the State of North Carolina and serious harm to the water resources of the state.” The lawsuit demands Duke Energy report the cause and extent of their discharge into the French Broad and groundwater.


The Asheville facility is a microcosm of communities across Appalachia. Nearly every major river in the Appalachia has one or more unlined ponds on its banks holding slurries of coal ash from power plants. Dams throughout Appalachia hold back tens of millions of coal ash. The dams, some of which are forty or more years old, are essentially ticking time bombs.

In the words of Leonardo da Vinci, “Water is the driving force of all nature.” Nowhere in the world is that more true than in the water-rich Blue Ridge. We can prevent the insidious threats coal ash slurry poses to the region’s most prized resource now, while it’s still possible. If we wait too long, we won’t be able to separate contaminated groundwater from the river or pull heavy metals from the deep sediment layers. As a community, it makes no sense to subsidize energy costs with the health of our rivers. The price of safeguarding our water today is a fraction of the cleanup costs imposed by tomorrow’s polluted waterways.

A Look at Coal Ash in Your State

  • On the West Virginia and Pennsylvania border, the Little Blue Run coal ash pond is the largest in the country, covering three square miles. The color is so bright that the pond can be viewed from space.
  • In Virginia, the EPA has only inspected five of thirteen power plants for on-site coal ash dam safety.
  • In Tennessee, all eight of the state’s power plants received ratings of either “significant danger” or “high-hazard” from the EPA for dam safety.
  • North Carolina has more “high-hazard” coal ash impoundments than any other state in the Southeast.
  • South Carolina plants have inadequate data for the EPA to even assess dam safety. Only one of the state’s twelve facilities has received a safety rating.
  • Kentucky has more coal-fired power plants than any other state in the Southeast. About one half of the facilities have “significant” or “high-hazard” ratings from the EPA.
  • In Georgia, seven out of eleven coal power plants have been rated by the EPA for safety and the dams at all but one of the plants were rated “high-hazard.”

Visit for more information about coal ash in your area and what you can do to put a stop to wet coal ash storage. 

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