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  • What’s in the Water? The North Carolina Coal Ash Crisis, by Caroline Rutledge Armijo

    by Caroline Rutledge Armijo

    During the summer of 2010, my heart was breaking. There were an unusual number of untimely deaths back home, in Stokes County, N.C. In the midst of praying for my junior-high friend before her second 

    craniotomy for her Stage III brain tumor, I paused. She was only 34. I was struggling with how I could faithfully pray for my friend. At the same time, my childhood neighbor was on his deathbed from a malignant brain tumor.

    As a liturgical artist, I turned to my work to sort through my concerns. I sculpted a piece out of an old book from my church closet - “Your God is Too Small,” by J.B. Phillips. I asked “Whose God is too small?” My friend’s faith was not wavering, but mine was. Ultimately, I called it Gray Matter. It evolved into a paper sculpture shaped like a small brain with grave rubbings of loved ones I had lost over the years tucked into the cut pages.

    During the process, I also began to ask, “What’s in the water?” and “What’s at Belews Lake?” The answers I found were disturbing.

    Belews Lake was built with the advent of Belews Creek Steam Station, which opened in 1974, the year of my birth. It is Duke Energy’s largest coal-burning power plant in the Carolinas. It provides twenty percent of the power for North Carolina and burns over 200 railcars of coal on a peak day.

    The by-product of this process is coal ash, which contains a toxic mix of heavy metals, including arsenicberylliumboroncadmiumchromium, hexavalent, chromium, cobaltleadmanganesemercurymolybdenumseleniumstrontiumthallium, and vanadium. Historically coal ash has been contained in retaining ponds covered with water close to rivers throughout our country. This allows for energy providers to discharge water into the rivers and maintain appropriate levels in the ponds. As one can imagine, this puts our drinking water in grave risk.

    Belews Creek is home to over 20 million tons of coal ash, 13 million of which is located in one massive pond reaching 342 acres wide and twelve to fourteen stories deep. It includes twenty-seven drains that flow into the Dan River twenty-four hours a day since 2006. I imagine this is like burying radioactive toxic waste the size of over two hundred city blocks of skyscrapers – a monstrosity hidden in plain sight, quietly polluting our scenic, rural landscape.

    Local lifelong residents talk about how the coal ash rained down over the area for a decade. As a child, I vaguely remember drawing smiley faces and writing WASH ME on the backs of car windows while spending the summer at my cousin’s house. Back then, I had serious allergies and asthma that prevented me from participating in any sport. I was not a great athlete anyway, but the lack of energy and inability to breathe stopped me in my tracks. When I moved to Chapel Hill for college, all of my allergies were miraculously gone. I thought that I had simply outgrown my allergies. I had always heard your body regenerates itself every seven years. But this summer, I began to wonder if the ash was the source of my sickness, five years after I started speaking to my friends about how coal ash impacts other people's health.

    In late 2012, the residents around Belews Creek developed a group called Residents for Coal Ash Clean Up. Until two years ago, many people were unfamiliar with coal ash despite the massive TVA coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee in December 2008, which knocked homes off foundations and is still undergoing a billion dollar remediation process seven years later. Once the Dan River spill put coal ash in the spotlight as the third largest coal spill in our nation’s history, our organizing efforts grew exponentially.

    Groundhog Day marked the two-year anniversary of when the Duke Energy plant in Eden started leaking coal ash into the Dan River. Even though executives knew that the plant was at grave risk for this happening, Duke took no preventative measures and a week to stop the spill. 80,000 tons of coal still coat 70 miles of the Dan River after a meager 4% clean-up deemed complete by the EPA. Headlines today tell us the State of Virginia is suing Duke Energy regarding this spill.

    It is hard for me to forget that the same week the coal ash flowed down the Dan River, my friends and I were praying for a ten-year-old boy on Facebook. He lived within two miles of the Belews Creek plant just thirty miles upstream from Eden. I first heard about him when he was in remission from his brain tumor. By the summer, doctors discovered tumors filled his lungs. He passed away in February 2014.

    This summer our communities from around the state came together to form Alliance of Carolinians Together against Coal Ash. This statewide organization includes groups from the fourteen Duke Energy facilities around the state, plus groups from Lee and Chatham Counties, which are slated to receive the ash. Non-profit agencies who assist us include Appalachian Voices,Blue Ridge Environmental Defense LeagueClean Water for NC,NC WARNNC Environmental Justice NetworkNC NAACP Local Chapters, and EnvironmentaLEE.

    On Epiphany 2016, ACT released its unifying principles on the same day that WRAL, the Raleigh television station, broke the story of Governor McCroy, a 28-year employee of Duke Energy, hosting a secret dinner at the Governor’s Mansion with Duke Energy executives and DEQ officials on June 1st in the midst of the state’s coal ash regulation. No one will say what they talked about over dinner, but afterwards DEQ reduced Duke’s coal ash settlement from $25 million for one pond, to just $7 million for all 14 ponds.

    Instead of fixing this situation or holding the polluters responsible, DEQ is downplaying the risk from chemicals that Duke Energy has dumped into our drinking water. These chemicals like vanadium or hexavalent chromium are just one of a cocktail of toxins being fed into our water, streams and bodies daily. The three most startling numbers found on the Do Not Drink letters surrounding Belews Creek include: arsenic: 108 ug/L, lead: 1890 ug/L, and Iron=8500 ug/L. Imagine what that does to your body to live, eat, breath and sleep surrounded by a mix of arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, radon and many more heavy metals for forty years.

    One of our members living closest to the Belews Creek coal ash pond is able to shave a layer of ash off of her bedspread every four to five days during Duke’s recent reconstruction process. She is one of the 400 families living on bottled water in the state of North Carolina for the last year. These families must use bottles of Dasani water to eat, bathe, brush their teeth, wash their vegetables, and cook. Stacks of bottles fill every corner of their homes. It is an incredible burden to deal with the cardboard and plastic recycling.

    Yet Governor McCroy has yet to identify this statewide water crisis inflicted by Duke Energy as a problem for our citizens. After the news of the Governor’s secret dinner, ACT against Coal Ash went to Raleigh to invite Governor McCroy to come to any of the impacted citizens’ homes for dinner. Citizens of Walnut Cove invited him again the following week. He still has not responded.

    Ultimately, I consistently show up and pray publiclly around coal ash, because this is my calling. Perhaps it is because of my questioning in 2005. Now it’s as if I am standing atop a giant wave, witnessing the upheaval of systemic environmental injustice that has plagued our country for generations. Neighbors are stepping out from behind their political allegiances to unite together and speak up for a clean environment. People contact us from around the globe wanting to help us and share our story. Headlines pop up daily revealing new secrets surrounding the associations between our state government and Duke Energy. In a small town of seemingly insignificance, God’s monumental work is unfolding all around us. And I don’t want to miss a minute of it.

    Would you like to share more about coal ash with your congregations? Coal Ash Stories includes four short films that illustrate the public health concerns, policy issues, and ways communities are responding. Belews Creek is the focus of At What Cost. The purpose of the program is to educate residents and draw attention to the toxic impact of coal ash on communities. Coal Ash Stories is part of Working Films' Reel Power initiative. See more at:

    Caroline Rutledge Armijo is an artist and environmental activist living in Greensboro, N.C. She served as resident artist at Calvary Baptist Church while living in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2012. You can read more about her coal ash advocacy adventures and see her artwork at

    Photo: Caroline Rutledge Armijo speaking out against the risk of fracking.

    Caroline’s Top Twelve Tips For Organizing Around an Issue

    Excerpted from a webinar hosted by Appalachian Voices in May 2015

    1. Find your issue and stick with it, but be able to talk how it fits into the picture. You want to find a place somewhere between working in silos on narrow topics and feeling responsible for changing everything wrong with the planet.
    2. Share your story along with what you know about the topic. You don’t have to know everything. Stick to facts that reinforce your personal story and direct others to answers for more complicated elements. Your knowledge will naturally grow over time.
    3. Find a non-profit organization already focused on your issue. They will help you get organized and reach far many more people than you can on your own.
    4. Reach out to already formed community organizations, like local churches, where relationships are already developed.
    5. Develop your one-on-one relationships, beginning with experts on the topic and then look to local, state and federal level organizations for ways to connect.
    6. Identify and foster your families of leaders, who typically are involved in several community organizations. Always encourage them to bring their kids, who will be the next generation of leaders.
    7. Say yes to opportunities, like media interviews, that allow you to connect with others, share your story, and share resources of experts you know.
    8. Make events powerful for the people gathered. The media may get your big idea wrong or it may be trumped by another event. So make it about more than the press coverage.
    9. Include faith as an element in meetings, conversations and certain events. Coming together around an issue like coal ash is a great way for people of faith to live out their faithfulness and deeply impact their community through issues of environmental justice and creation care.
    10. Stay positive - This is happening. Fighting for an issue takes a long time and it is important to recognize the changes as they happen.
    11. Be specific. Make a list of demands that satisfy your community instead of just complaining.
    12. Rest & practice joy to build up strength. It is critical to take significant breaks between stepping up for an issue, because this is a lengthy process. Enjoy your life with your friends and family. It is your rest and joy that gives you strength.