05/20/2015 03:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Asheville Coal Plant to Retire After High-Profile, Three-Year Campaign


This week, I want to honor some of the most hard-working activists on our Beyond Coal campaign -- Team Asheville in North Carolina. After years of rallies, public meetings, educational forums, leadership from the Asheville City council, letter-writing and even a visit from the star Ian Somerhalder, on Tuesday, all that hard work paid off. Duke Energy announced it will retire its filthy Asheville coal plant, the 190th plant to announce retirement during the Beyond Coal campaign.

While Duke is unfortunately ignoring Asheville residents' demands of replacing it entirely with clean energy (Duke plans to replace the plant with natural gas), these tireless activists can still claim a victory to be proud of -- winning a reprieve for the French Broad river from coal ash, eliminating the region's biggest source of air and climate pollution and a making a strong show of grassroots power that held one of the nation's most powerful companies accountable.

"Duke's announcement to retire the coal plant came with the unwelcome news of a new gas plant, which of course is not the vision we hold for a clean energy economy here in North Carolina," said Kelly Martin of Asheville Beyond Coal. "We claimed our victory, but stayed honest about the outcome. At least now there is an end in sight to the coal ash pollution, the sulfur dioxide pollution, and the carbon pollution from this plant."

The Asheville coal plant was featured by Showtime's Emmy-award winning climate series "Years of Living Dangerously," and I traveled to Asheville several times, both for the series, and to support the campaign, which became even more intense after Duke spilled coal ash into North Carolina's Dan River (for which they just ran apology ads in major newspapers nationwide). Just a few days ago, Duke pled guilty in federal court for Clean Water Act violations from coal ash at plants across the state, including at the Asheville plant.

I know first-hand that Asheville's powerhouse team of clean energy advocates from Asheville Beyond Coal, including MountainTrue, Waterkeeper Alliance, French Broad Riverkeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center, along with thousands of individuals and local leaders, will continue their work to move beyond fossil fuels in their city and in all of North Carolina. For years, they hammered this Duke Energy coal plant for its Clean Water Act violations, its coal ash pollution and its immense air pollution and today they're one giant step closer to a clean, healthy Western North Carolina.

Let's look at some of the highlights from the years of accomplishments they achieved on the road to Tuesday's announcement:

October 2012: More than 100 citizens and Asheville Beyond Coal activists formed a flotilla on Lake Julian -- in front of Asheville's coal-fired power plant -- to raise three 17-foot banners to deliver the message loud and clear, "Let's Move Asheville Beyond Coal."

August 2013: Hundreds of people gather for a rally encouraging Asheville to move beyond coal by retiring the plant. The rally includes Vampire Diaries star and enviro activist Ian Somerhalder.

October 2013: After amazing pressure from residents, the Asheville City Council voted unanimously to approve a resolution to move Asheville from coal-fired electricity toward a clean energy future.

May 2014: Showtime's "Years of Living Dangerously" series airs its episode on Asheville's coal battle and local activist Anna Jane Joyner, and it even includes yours truly.

Ads, ads, ads! In 2013, 2014, and 2015, Asheville Beyond Coal aired TV ads about the filthy Duke Energy coal plant in their city and how it needs to be retired.

February 2015: The team continues blasting Duke Asheville plant for fouling the air and water, this time with a report showing that the plant has been emitting harmful sulfur dioxide pollution at levels considered unsafe by the Environmental Protection Agency for the past several years.

I look forward to seeing Asheville residents continue to push for clean energy. I know they will succeed. They are an inspiration to me, and to climate clean air and climate advocates nationwide.