The Canary Coalition for Clean Air in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains
“You cannot affirm the power plant and condemn the smokestack, or affirm the smoke and condemn the cough.”
—Wendell Berry, The Gift of the Good Land, 1981
When I returned to the United States from living abroad, my goal was to settle down in a beautiful rural area and build a life there. I was impressed by Western North Carolina’s richly forested mountains, kind people, plentiful rainfall, and huge tracts of protected land. But these blessings were marred by some of the worst air quality in the nation, due largely to pollution from motor vehicles and coal-fired power plants. My first impulse was to find another location with cleaner air, but I was reminded of Joe Louis’ famous line, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” Air pollution in the Smoky Mountains is a symptom of a much more pervasive disorder. Human-derived environmental contamination can now be found from pole to pole, at the highest mountain peaks, and at the bottom of the deepest ocean trenches (WHO, 2007).
With this in mind, I decided to dig in and look for ways to directly address our local air quality problems. Fortunately, there were many other community members who valued clean air. In 2000, I met Avram Friedman, Executive Director of the Canary Coalition. This clean air advocacy organization had made significant progress with the people of the southern Appalachians and with state lawmakers in Raleigh. A prime example of this was North Carolina’s Clean Smokestacks Act, one of the nation’s strongest examples of clean air legislation. It promised to reduce emissions from the state’s 14 coal-fired power plants by 70% to 80% by 2010.
With Avram’s guidance, I joined eight other Canary Coalition members on a lobbying trip to Raleigh to meet with state legislators and highlight citizen support for this important clean air legislation. One representative showed us stacks of postcards and lists of e-mails and phone calls he had received on this issue, with an overwhelming majority supporting the Clean Smokestacks Act (Ross, 2009). Other lawmakers were less sympathetic, but there were already clear signs that our grassroots work was speaking more loudly than the deep pockets of the coal and electric industries. In 2002, the North Carolina General Assembly signed the Clean Smokestacks Act into law with an overwhelming majority (Figure 97-1).