Activists with Greenpeace staged a protest at Progress Energy's Asheville facility on Monday. Here, three people can be seen climbing a 400-foot stack at the utility. Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

Group scales 400-foot stack, says action protests ‘destruction and pollution caused by coal’

Greenpeace activists, seen here to the left, scaled the 400-foot stack at Progress Energy early Monday. Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

Security is tight at the Asheville Steam Plant operated by Progress Energy, adjacent to I-26 in Skyland.

But that didn’t stop a group of 16 Greenpeace activists from entering the site early this morning, where some took up positions near the coal ash ponds and the coal loader and conveyers while others scaled a 400-foot stack to unfurl a banner.

By early afternoon, all activists on the ground had been arrested by Buncombe County Sheriff’s deputies, but the five ascending the stacks were still climbing.

Scott Sutton, a communications officer with Progress Energy, confirmed that Buncombe County Sheriff’s deputies were on the scene, with support from State Bureau of Investigation.

“It’s an active crime scene,” Sutton told Carolina Public Press, who added that public safety is the number one concern as the situation continues to unfold. “This plant is critical national infrastructure.”

The Asheville plant provides power to tens of thousands of residents and businesses in nine counties across Western North Carolina.

Greenpeace spokesperson Keiller MacDuff told CPP early this morning that five activists planned to scale the stack using climbing equipment, including hard hats with small cameras attached.

By 12:30, the five climbers had ascended to the first of several platforms on the stacks and secured themselves, according to climber Robert Gardner, who spoke to CPP via mobile phone.

“The view is beautiful from up here,” Gardner told CPP. “It’s pretty nice up here now, although it was cold first thing this morning.”

Gardner said they planned to climb to the very top of the stacks to attach their banners, then descend, where they anticipate being arrested. Meanwhile, Greenpeace had plans to take photos from a helicopter flight over the plant.

It’s all part of a larger campaign Greenpeace is launching today against coal-fired power at the local utilities, MacDuff added.

Overhead view of Progress Energy’s Asheville facility, taken in 2010. The facility was the focus of a Greenpeace protest held Monday. Photo courtesy of SouthWings.

Duke Energy and Progress Energy are planning a merger that, if approved, would make it the largest utility in the United States. The utilities “have a veneer of greenness that hasn’t been matched by reality,” she told CPP. With all the green energy alternatives coming online today, she said, including solar and wind power, “we’d like to see them quit coal completely by 2030.”

“The power companies have enormous assets,” Gardner continued, “and a lot of rhetoric about how green they are. We want them to live up to their rhetoric, and stop burning mountaintop-removal coal. Renewable energy technologies are available,” he said, citing as an example the large solar array recently installed at the Biltmore Estate, clearly visible from his perch on Progress Energy’s waste stack.

Greenpeace released a written statement early Monday morning, explaining their move to target the Asheville power plant.

“Coal plants like the Asheville Power Station damage communities and the climate at every stage of their life cycle,” it said in the release. “The destructive mining practices, the burning, and the storage of toxic coal ash” were given as factors in selecting the Asheville facility for the protest.

Local environmental groups have repeatedly expressed concern over the hazards presented by the coal ash ponds at Asheville’s Progress Energy site. Coal ash waste is held in two large, unlined holding ponds at the plant. Groundwater monitoring wells maintained by the state around the facility’s boundaries have shown high levels of heavy metals in quarterly tests over the last year, suggesting these toxins have already made their way into local groundwater.

The ash ponds are held back by an earthen dam located just above I-26 and the French Broad River.

The Environmental Protection Agency has rated the dam as “high-hazard” because of the potential for loss of human life if it were to fail. The EPA also lists the ash ponds as being in “poor” condition, owing to the slope stability of their earthen walls. The agency has recommended changes, some of which have been completed by Progress Energy. Other improvements await state approval.

Because of the merger bid, MacDuff said, Greenpeace sees this as a critical time to gain a commitment from the power company to change the way it produces energy for its customers.

“This plant runs on destroyed mountains, it spews out air pollution,” Gardner said in the written statement released early this morning. “It causes climate change and it poisons the water and the earth. If Duke merges with Progress, the new owners have a responsibility to the people of North Carolina to move to clean energy… They’re going to have to get serious about phasing out polluting plants like this one, and make some real investments in renewable energy that will protect America’s future.”

Want to learn more?

The Western North Carolina Alliance and partners are organizing several community events on issues related to coal ash pollution. The first will be a community meeting at Green Drinks, Asheville’s enviro social hour, at Posana Cafe at 6 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 15. Short presentations from the French Broad Riverkeeper and Appalachian Voices will be followed by a discussion of how folks can get involved. RSVP here.

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Susan Andrew is contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at

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