Southeast River Runs Part 4: Coal Ash on the French Broad River

Guest Blog | July 9, 2013 | Coal, Energy Policy

This is the fourth blog in a series featuring rivers of the Southeast endangered by toxic coal ash pollution. The rest of the series can be found hereThanks to Hartwell Carson, French Broad Riverkeeper, who contributed to this post. 

Rafting on the French Broad. Source: Jeff Rich and Paul Taggart

Communities across the United States are rediscovering their rivers as precious resources. River fronts once inhabited solely by industry are now the centerpiece for redevelopment projects, river walks and other infrastructure to help people and businesses make the most of their local waterways. Western North Carolina’s French Broad River is no exception to this national trend. The river once described by author Wilma Dykeman as “too thick to drink and too thin to plow”, is now a recreation and commerce destination, boasting extensive greenways, parks and a revitalized River Arts District in Asheville, N.C.

Locals and tourists alike now flock to the French Broad River and its watershed. One of the world’s oldest rivers, it offers visitors a range of spectacular views and recreational opportunities as it cuts through the Appalachian mountains and meanders through farmlands. Whether it’s a leisurely hike or canoe trip, or something more exciting like whitewater kayaking; you can find it on the French Broad. Near the river’s headwaters, a lucky few may even glimpse the elusive and endangered Hellbender, North America’s giant salamander, which can grow to almost 3 feet in length! (Click here for a video.)

French Broad River falls in Transylvania County, N.C. Source:


“The biggest change I’ve seen on the French Broad is how much use it is getting now,” says Hartwell Carson, French Broad Riverkeeper. “The river used to be very neglected, people saw it as polluted. But last year two new outfitters opened up to get people on the river. People are starting to appreciate that it is a resource and not a dumping ground.”

But just because perceptions about the French Broad have changed, doesn’t mean the reality has. Industry pollution might not be as widespread and well known as it once was, but coal ash ponds and other industrial polluters are still contaminating this beautiful river with arsenic and other toxic pollutants.


Duke Power’s Asheville Power Station is located on and uses the waters of the French Broad River for cooling and other operations, including wet disposal of coal ash in massive impoundments. At last official count the plant’s two coal ash impoundments contained almost 905 million gallons of coal ash dumped in impoundments near the river’s banks. That’s enough to cover 2,000 football fields one foot deep in toxic waste. The waste in these giant lagoons is contained by two of the 49 coal ash impoundments rated high hazard by the Environmental Protection Agency. The dams earned this rating because a dam failure (like TVA’s Kingston coal ash disaster) would likely result in loss of life and significant infrastructure damage; in this case to I-240 (and the French Broad River), that is directly down hill from the dams.

Unlike most coal ash ponds, those at the Asheville Power Plant are in close proximity to neighborhoods, making the possibility of a dam failure and ongoing pollution from the site even more alarming.

But coal ash dams like these don’t only harm rivers and communities when they collapse, coal ash impoundments can (and often do) seep toxic pollution to nearby ground and surface waters on a regular basis. The French Broad Riverkeeper has found several seeps in the Asheville coal ash dams; illegal discharges which flow directly into the French Broad River. Sampling shows these seeps are leaking high concentrations of heavy metals, prompting legal action by conservation groups and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources for violations of the federal Clean Water Act. Coal ash from Asheville’s Power Plant has also been “recycled” as building site fill at the Asheville Regional Airport, also near the river, creating more potential for pollution to the river and nearby groundwater.

Ironically, the Asheville plant has gotten a good reputation for environmental stewardship thanks to air pollution upgrades made to the facility in recent years. But just like we all learned in seventh grade science class, “matter is neither created nor destroyed”, and all those pollutants are simply re-routed from air emissions to coal ash. Hartwell Carson reminds us of the importance of looking at the whole picture and seeking comprehensive solutions to the problems caused by coal-fired electricity generation:

There are huge lagoons of toxic coal ash full of heavy metals with almost zero protections next to our rivers. Is that the vision we want for the French Broad River? That’s not what our community wants. We all need to recognize that if we’re going to burn coal, we have to keep utilities responsible for those impacts. Better yet, we need to look for other solutions that are safer and healthier for everybody.

Right now we all have an opportunity to put stronger protections from coal ash pollution in place. Until September 20, the EPA is taking public comments on new Coal Plant Water Pollution Standards – an important piece of the puzzle in controlling coal ash pollution. Send your comments now and ask the EPA to stop coal ash pollution to the French Broad, and all rivers nationwide. Meanwhile, Congressional efforts are under way to undermine EPA’s authority to regulate coal ash and prevent the establishment of federal minimum safeguards. Send a message to your Representative today asking that they oppose these efforts and let EPA do its job to regulate this toxic trash.

The French Broad Riverkeeper is a non-profit organization working to protect and restore the French Broad River and its tributaries. To learn more about the river, or get involved to help out, visit their webpage at

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