Archive for the ‘Front Porch Blog’ Category

Hail to the Chief — Lenny Kohm, 1939-2014

Monday, September 29th, 2014 - posted by Jamie Goodman

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With heavy hearts, we must announce that last week the world lost a true warrior for environmental justice and human rights, and Appalachian Voices lost a colleague and true friend.

Lenny Kohm’s legacy stretches from coast to coast, and from the wilds of Alaska down to the sunny Caribbean seaside. He influenced everyone he met, whether at a meeting about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, presenting a slideshow on mountaintop removal, or just enjoying a beverage with new friends in Jamaica.

As one person said so aptly in a tribute on Facebook: “Lenny you built an army of good, one person at a time, and we will keep fighting for you.”

Although semi-retired, Lenny was living life fully, as he always does, working on his “Boots-on-the-Ground” project and planning his next trip to Jamaica, which was only a few weeks away. He was found in his home, in his bed. He was 74.

We will miss you, Chief.

UPDATE: A celebration of his life is scheduled to take place Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014 in Boone, N.C. (location TBD). Details will be posted on a website created in Lenny’s honor, and the website is also accepting tributes and remembrances. Visit lennykohm.org.

A huge win: Gainesville enacts policy to stop using mountaintop removal coal

Monday, September 29th, 2014 - posted by matt
Gainesville Loves Mountains founder, Jason Fults, advocates for a policy discouraging the purchase of mountaintop removal coal before the Gainesville City Commission on Sept. 18

Gainesville Loves Mountains founder, Jason Fults, advocates for a policy discouraging the purchase of mountaintop removal coal before the Gainesville City Commission on Sept. 18

At a time when Congress can’t seem to conduct even routine business and nearly half of the country still denies climate change, that old Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” can seem a little quaint and dated, if not hopelessly idealistic.

But earlier this month, a group of citizens in Gainesville, Fla., proved the truth of those words. Because of the heroic efforts of a small group of citizens, Gainesville became the first city in America to enact a policy to curtail — and possibly eliminate altogether — its reliance on coal from mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia.

A cheer went up in the packed city hall chambers when the city commission voted 5-2 for a policy designed to break the city’s longstanding reliance on coal from mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia to power its electric grid. This victory was the culmination of three and a half years of work that included five hearings by the city commission, hundreds of hours of volunteer work, and dozens of meetings with city commissioners.

The policy’s passage, championed by city commissioner Lauren Poe and supported by three Democrats and two Republicans on the commission, proved that bipartisanship is still alive in some corners of the country and that democracy can still work the way it was intended to; responsive to the will of citizens instead of just private interests with the power to make unlimited campaign contributions.

At the hearing on Sept. 18, staff of Appalachian Voices gave commissioners a virtual tour of some of the mountaintop removal mines that had supplied coal to Gainesville in the past. Suppliers included the Samples mine in West Virginia, which the late Appalachian hero Larry Gibson fought for decades to prevent the destruction of his beloved Kayford Mountain. Another supplier was the nearby Twilight Surface Mine, which was responsible for turning the community of Lindytown into a ghost town, as The New York Times powerfully eulogized in this 2011 story.

Use the arrows on the slideshow below to see excerpts of the presentation Appalachian Voices shared with the Gainesville City Commission:

There are no mountains within 100 miles of Gainesville. So how a group called Gainesville Loves Mountains became one of the city’s most active and influential advocacy groups is an interesting story.

The group’s founder, Jason Fults, first became aware of mountaintop removal as a student at Berea College in eastern Kentucky. After graduating and moving back to Gainesville, he was horrified to learn the local power plant operated by Gainesville Regional Utilities, the Deerhaven Generating Station, was purchasing most of its coal from some of the biggest and most destructive mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia.

But Jason didn’t stop with being horrified; he resolved to do what it takes to break Gainesville’s connection to mountaintop removal, and he found others willing to makes the same commitment. Three and a half years later they succeeded — or at least they’ve come very close. But the battle is not over quite yet. The policy enacted by the city ensures that Gainesville Regional Utilities will not purchase coal mined using mountaintop removal as long as it has bids from other types of mines that are not more than 5 percent higher than bids from mountaintop removal operators.

Based on my experience, that should generally be sufficient to ensure the city does not purchase mountaintop removal coal. If bids from mountaintop removal operators do come in at least 5 percent lower than other bids, however, the utility can come back to the commission to request special dispensation to purchase the cheaper, but in many ways more costly, coal. Several commissioners indicated that they may still very well choose to purchase from the more expensive non-mountaintop removal coal suppliers if that’s the case, but it’s going to require a contentious vote. And, if that time comes, the folks at Gainesville Loves Mountains will undoubtedly pull out all the stops to ensure the city doesn’t vote to purchase mountaintop removal coal.

Members of Gainesville Loves Mountains and Appalachian Voices' staff celebrate with commissioner Lauren Poe after the vote.

Members of Gainesville Loves Mountains and Appalachian Voices’ staff celebrate with commissioner Lauren Poe after the vote.

The big question is whether other cities can follow Gainesville’s lead. The short answer is that some can, though there are not many other cities served by a municipally-owned utility that operates its own coal-fired power plant and buys coal from Central Appalachia. There are a few such examples — the city of Orlando, Fla., for example — but folks who are customers of private investor-owned utilities or municipal utilities that purchase power from investor-owned utilities will have a very different challenge on their hands if they want to ensure companies like Duke Energy, American Electric Power or Dominion Resources stop purchasing coal from mountaintop removal mines.

The good news is that the city of Gainesville paved the way by coming up with a thoughtful and substantive policy that also provides some protection to ratepayers. That’s important because utilities have successfully used scare tactics about the potential for increases in electricity prices to defeat every previous attempt to pass bills banning the use of mountaintop removal in states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland. Even the students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill were unable to get a policy passed to ban purchases of mountaintop removal coal from the power plant on campus because of the scare tactics employed by the operators of the plant.

Fortunately, the Gainesville policy provides a model that should alleviate those fears, and we can hope that students at UNC and Michigan State University, where local power plants are still purchasing mountaintop removal coal, will try again now that the City of Gainesville has led the way.

The People’s Climate March: Hope makes a comeback

Saturday, September 27th, 2014 - posted by Maggie Cozens
Approximately 100 Appalachian State University  students traveled to New York for the People's Climate March.

Approximately 100 Appalachian State University students traveled to New York for the People’s Climate March. Photo by Maggie Cozens.

“I know we’re exhausted; my feet hurt…actually my everything hurts,” said Dave Harman of 350 Boone, as our busload of students headed back toward North Carolina. “But I just wanted to say that this went beyond my wildest expectations. I’m still glowing from today.”

As we slowly wended our way out of Manhattan, tired and feet aching, I found myself struggling to process the overwhelming feeling that pervaded every inch of the nearly 4-mile long procession earlier that day. The feeling saturated every piece of artwork and humble homemade sign, resonated in each drumroll and singing voice, and illuminated the eyes of every one of the 400,000 marchers in attendance. Such was the overpowering feeling of hope at the People’s Climate March.

See more photos from the march.

Approximately 100 Appalachian State University students took part in Sunday’s march and happily found Appalachia well-represented upon arrival. We could not walk two feet without running into someone carrying a sign calling for an end to mountaintop removal coal mining.

One of the Appalachian State totems was garnished with a People’s Climate March sign that read “I’m marching for the end of mountaintop removal.” It was one among countless others, and no demographic, environmental or social issue went unrepresented. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, indigenous groups, politicians and celebrities joined together and walked in solidarity. The student section was alight with passionate youth from across the country, eager to roll up their sleeves and build a better future, as bright yellow and orange signs ebulliently bobbed up and down along the sea of marchers like rising suns.

The diversity of the marchers was a beautiful sight to behold, but perhaps more stunning was the common thread running between them. Everyone was united in their confidence to affect change; the understanding that tackling the factors behind climate change — the environmental degradation caused by poorly regulated industries, inadequate government involvement, overconsumption and our growth-obsessed economy — holds the solution to a myriad of interconnected global issues today. It quickly became apparent at the march that climate change is as much a political, social, and cultural issue as it is an environmental one. And that efforts to address the problem could lead to a transformation as expansive as climate change itself.

Later that evening on the bus, Dave mentioned in all his years of activism he had never seen anything like the People’s Climate March. The shift in morale was so strong it was almost palpable. In New York and in every sister march around the world, the air was electrified with hope and faith in the future. This was perhaps no more evident than at 1 p.m., when a moment of silence erupted into an explosion of noise. Every marcher raised their voice in opposition to climate change; shouting for each other, the future, and the planet. Dave remarked that the clamor was hair-raising, a sonic “atomic bomb” filled with promise and power.

After attending Sunday’s march, it is hard to shake that feeling of hope. It is disturbing how lacking it had been beforehand, but its return is beyond welcome and reassuring. In the face of such a daunting and massive problem as climate change, it is easy to throw up your hands in exasperation and become discouraged. But after this weekend we should realize this problem is not insurmountable and, if the numbers are any indication, that no one is fighting it alone.

Click here to submit your comment supporting the EPA’s efforts to act on climate.

We Made History! Highlights from the People’s Climate March

Thursday, September 25th, 2014 - posted by kate

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View more photos of the Appalachian contingent at the People’s Climate March.

Last weekend, Appalachian Voices joined 400,000 people in New York City for the largest climate march in history. And it was truly inspiring.

Kate Rooth, Matt Wasson and Thom Kay were among the AV staff joining the Appalachian contingent at the People's Climate March

Kate Rooth, Matt Wasson and Thom Kay were among the AV staff joining the Appalachian contingent at the People’s Climate March

While massive extractive fossil fuel interests try everything in their power to tighten their grip on our region’s energy future, it’s moments like these that show we are making progress. People from across the country came to the march, including many dear friends from Central Appalachia who are directly impacted by the destruction of mountaintop removal coal mining and our country’s reliance on coal.

We laughed, we cried, we danced and chanted, but most importantly we sent a signal loud and clear to world leaders gathering for UN climate negotiations that action must be taken immediately to avert further impacts of climate change.

The march was more than four miles long and included an enormous variety of people and issues. One contingent of activists supported the clean, renewable power sources that will help address the climate crisis. In the midst of the robust Virginia contingent, dozens of wooden model wind turbines twirled in the breeze. In the middle of the march was a youth contingent which included K-12 students and their families and stretched more than four blocks. The visuals were stunning, the energy was electrifying, and for once, the weather was perfect for a climate march!

The People's Climate March, stretched for nearly four miles and included and estimated 400,000 people. Photo from Avaaz.org

The People’s Climate March, stretched for nearly four miles and included and estimated 400,000 people. Photo from Avaaz.org

Leading the march were communities in the frontlines of the climate crisis. From Black Mesa, to the Gulf, inner city Chicago to the hollers of Appalachia, impacted communities have been standing together as part of the Climate Justice Alliance. It was an honor to stand with Appalachian leaders and support the courageous efforts the frontline communities that were marching.

The People’s Climate March demonstrated that communities are standing together and the immense power of those committed to fighting. Perhaps most importantly, it reminded each of us that we are in this together.

As we continue to fight state-by-state and town-by-town in our region for solutions and strong measures to reduce pollution, this march filled us with inspiration and resolve.

Were you at the march? We’d love to see your stories and memories in the comments.

Hundreds of North Carolinians attend final fracking hearing

Monday, September 22nd, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Hundreds of concerned citizens wait for the hearing to begin.

Hundreds of concerned citizens wait for the hearing to begin.

Earlier this month, hundreds of North Carolinians gathered in Cullowhee, N.C., for the fourth and final public hearing on rules drafted by the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission (MEC) to regulate hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the state.

The afternoon started with a press conference and rally to show opposition to fracking in North Carolina. About a hundred people joined the rally to hold “No Fracking” signs and listen to a series of speakers including Appalachian Voices’ Amy Adams, the mayor of Hayesville, and Ron Gulla, a farmer who travelled from Pennsylvania to speak about his experience living with fracking.

Gulla raises cattle next to a fracking operation, and spoke with great concern about the health issues and increased death rates among his farm animals since drilling began. The farmer brought the some in the crowd to tears as he described the cancer and eventual death that fell upon his neighbor, a fellow rancher and friend named Terry Greenwood, after fracking began on his land.

Speakers Denise DerGarabedian (founder of the Coalition Against Fracking in WNC), Amy Adams, Susan Leading Fox, and Mayor Baughn stand in front of the anti-fracking crowd.

Speakers Denise DerGarabedian (founder of the Coalition Against Fracking in WNC), Amy Adams, Susan Leading Fox, and Mayor Baughn stand in front of the anti-fracking crowd.

The rally concluded with Susan Leading Fox, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and multi-generational native of western North Carolina. Fox spoke about the social costs that come with the fracking industry, including increased crime rates and displacement of low-income renters. After her emotional speech, her husband sung a Native American song to a steady drum beat, and the crowd listened intently as a prayer was sent out to protect North Carolina from the fracking industry.

After the rally, hundreds filed into the basketball stadium at Western Carolina University for the official hearing. More than 600 people were present, and almost all of them there to oppose fracking.

There was a small contingent of pro-fracking individuals, about 20 out of the 600, who wore bright blue t-shirts that said “Shale Yes!” and hats with “Energy Jobs” stitched in bold letters. When questioned about their position, however, several of them admitted that they had no idea what fracking was and that they were offered a meal to take a bus trip to the hearing. Read more about the how the oil and gas industry bussed in “pro-frackers” here.

During the hearing, more than 70 concerned citizens spoke for three-minute each on the proposed rules. Every single speaker was decidedly against fracking. The comments ranged from the very technical to the very passionate and were always received with cheers from the crowd. A local woman spoke of the need for better enforcement rules and harsher fines to discourage misbehavior from fracking companies, while a man told the crowd that, to him, commenting on the proposed rules for fracking, felt like a prisoner given a choice between death by hanging, death by firing squad, or death by electrocution — he simply did not want fracking. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

In total, more than 1,800 North Carolinians attended the four MEC hearings across the state that began last month and several hundreds gave oral comments. Thousands more are sending written comments to the MEC, which you can take a moment to do before the comment period closes on Sept. 30 by clicking here.

It’s obvious that North Carolinians overwhelmingly do not want fracking. The MEC will now have to consider all comments before finalizing the rules. So far, North Carolinians have sent a loud and clear message: if we can’t completely stop the rush to fracking, the regulations must be much stronger.

Energy efficiency at the forefront of cooperative principles in Tennessee

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014 - posted by rory
Frank Rapley, General Manager of TVA's Energy Efficiency Programs, presents on the new EE programs that TVA will be offering in 2015. Photo credit: Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

Frank Rapley, General Manager of TVA’s Energy Efficiency Programs, presents on the new EE programs that TVA will be offering in 2015. Photo credit: Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

Rural electric cooperatives, which serve millions of families across Appalachia, operate on seven principles, the most important of which (at least to us) is principle number seven: “Concern for Community.”

The seventh principle commits electric co-ops to “the sustainable development of their communities through policies accepted by their members.” As we described in a blog series on the need for and benefits on “on-bill” financing programs supporting home energy improvements in Appalachia, the sustainable development of the Appalachian region relies on the ability of residents to invest in their communities. But first and foremost, they must be able to afford their electric bills. The clear first step to achieving this vision is expanding energy efficiency, and this is something that Tennessee’s electric cooperatives have taken to heart.

On September 5, thanks to a generous grant from the National Governor’s Association (NGA), the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association (TECA), in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), sponsored a statewide energy efficiency “retreat.” The goal of the day-long policy retreat was to hash through the details of what will hopefully become a statewide program to finance home energy efficiency improvements, especially for low-income residents. Such programs have proven to reduce home energy costs substantially, and are primarily intended to help families that can’t afford to pay for the upfront cost of needed improvements. Below is a testimonial from one family that participated in South Carolina’s pilot on-bill financing program known as “Help My House.”

The retreat featured a number of experts in energy efficiency finance and program design as well as co-op and government administration, including numerous representatives from federal organizations and government agencies, Tennessee state government agencies and various experts and clean energy advocates such as Appalachian Voices and a handful of our partner organizations.

Most importantly, the retreat was attended by six of Tennessee’s rural electric cooperatives. Included among them was Appalachian Electric, which has proven to be a statewide leader in expanding energy efficiency opportunities not only for their own members, but for all of Tennessee’s rural co-op members. Unfortunately, of the six co-ops that participated in the retreat only two co-ops were from the Appalachian region, although we were told by TECA that a handful of others couldn’t attend but were interested in participating in the process. We hope that more co-ops with service territories in East Tennessee will sign on to the process, because as the energy cost maps we generated earlier this year show, members of Appalachian co-ops are most in need of support for reducing their electric bills.

The efforts of Appalachian Voices’ staff, through concerted outreach to Tennessee’s Appalachian electric co-ops and local stakeholders, played a key part in making the energy efficiency retreat happen, and as a result we were invited to participate as an expert stakeholder. We are extremely encouraged by the outstanding leadership that NGA, TECA, TDEC and Appalachian Electric are showing, and we admire their dedication to helping the families who need it most.

The prospect of a statewide on-bill financing program in Tennessee is exciting, and we remain committed to doing everything we can to seeing it through. Further, we appreciate everything you do to support our work. If you live in western North Carolina, get in touch, because we have a lot going on in your neighborhood too!

Successful Rally at the White House Council on Environmental Quality

Monday, September 15th, 2014 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note }This post about last week’s “Our Water, Our Future” rally in Washington, D.C. is by Dana Kuhnline, media coordinator for The Alliance for Appalachia, originally appeared on the Alliance’s website.

Dana Kuhnline

Dana Kuhnline

Last week, dozens of residents from Appalachia and allies from across the country rallied at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to pressure the Obama administration to protect Appalachia’s water and future from coal pollution. Those wishing to contact the CEQ to support residents can take action here.

The CEQ oversees the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Surface Mining and other agencies that are responsible for protecting Appalachian residents from the severe water and health impacts of mountaintop removal and other dangerous coal practices.

Unfortunately, Appalachian leaders who met with the agencies were disappointed with the attitude the administration showed toward concerned citizens that traveled many hours to D.C. for the visit. The agency representatives asked for more time to work on the issue of mountaintop removal, but mountain leaders have been waiting five years since an Obama administration Memorandum of Understanding that promised action against the destructive practice as well as reinvestment in the economy of the region.

The tragic and unbelievable series of toxic spills in Appalachia in 2014 — from the chemical spill that impacted more than 300,0000 people in West Virginia, to the slurry and coal ash spills in West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina — are just the most recent disasters to showing the failures of the Obama administration to follow through on its promises to protect Appalachian communities. More than 500 mountains have been destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining and the region is ready for a just transition to a economy beyond this destructive practice.

The next day, residents engaged in a sit-in on the front steps of the CEQ and waited several hours for an agency representative to come out to speak with them — eventually even hosting a square dance with a live band playing traditional Appalachian music in front of the CEQ. In addition, residents organized a bucket brigade to collect clean water from D.C. to bring back home to their communities that do not have access to safe water to drink.

When no representative from CEQ agreed to meet with residents after several hours of waiting, residents placed a report card on the steps that evaluated the progress so far of the Obama administration on important areas such as protecting the health and water of Appalachia. Participants in the rally gave the administration a grade of “incomplete.”

Appalachian citizens rally in front of the White House for "Our Water, Our Future."

Appalachian citizens rally in front of the White House for “Our Water, Our Future.”

Advocating for a fair Internet, for all

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014 - posted by brian
Appalachian Voices is participating in today's Internet Slowdown to support an open and fair web.

Appalachian Voices is participating in today’s Internet Slowdown to support an open and fair web.

If you find yourself staring at spinning wheels on some of your favorite websites today, take a moment to imagine what an unfair Internet would look like.

What if federal regulators currently considering how to regulate the Internet put your favorite small businesses or advocacy groups at even more of a disadvantage? That scary prospect is essentially what the Federal Communications Commission is considering right now.

Today’s Internet Slowdown is an effort to raise awareness around a policy known as “net neutrality.” The general idea behind net neutrality is that no individual website’s content should be prioritized above others. So, as this NPR piece puts it, “a user can go where he wants and do what he wants on the Internet without the interference of his broadband provider.”

If that basic, but threatened, fairness sounds like something you support, you’re not alone. The FCC has already received more than one million comments on the issue, the vast majority of which support stricter enforcement of net neutrality. Here’s how NPR describes what a positive outcome of this process might look like:

“Advocates for the open Internet are pushing for reclassifying the Internet from Title I to Title II under the Telecommunications Act of 1996. According to the supporters of this measure, it would make the Internet more like a public utility and give the agency more authority to regulate the Web and enforce protections for net neutrality.”

Supporters of net neutrality protections say that without the rules, Internet service providers like Comcast and Time Warner will have economic incentives to charge content providers …”

So where does that put groups like Appalachian Voices, who are stretching dollars thin and using the Internet the best way we know how to create the greatest impact and benefits for the communities where we work? I’d argue it puts us somewhere right near the center of the fight. If an open and fair Internet is not maintained, the near future could hold significant challenges for environmental and advocacy groups of all types, independent journalism, entrepreneurs, and really anyone who uses the web as a resource to learn or communicate about issues close to their heart.

Even worse, while concerned citizens are waiting, watching that spinning “wheel of death,” dirty energy interests would have no problem paying to take the fast lane — increasing their level of influence and ability to drown out our voices.

From our work to grow the nationwide movement to end mountaintop removal to more local efforts to build community support for clean water and put an end to coal ash pollution, the Internet has been essential as an educational and advocacy tool. So today, we’re joining in solidarity with other groups and businesses advocating for keeping the Internet open — the way it was always intended to be.

You can join the “Battle for the Net” and add your name to support a fair Internet here.

Updates: Stopping the “Tax on the Sun” in Virginia

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014 - posted by hannah

solar on house

As the comment period concludes on Appalachian Power Company’s proposed solar “stand-by” charge and next week’s formal regulatory hearing nears, we’re at full swing in a major push for solar freedom in Virginia.

Concerned ratepayers from Abingdon to Amherst, Botetourt to Blacksburg, Lynchburg and Floyd and all across the state have called for their power company to work with customer-generators and not to interfere with the free market for residential clean energy. Solar installation professionals, local elected officials, and solar homeowners have lent their voices in hope of denying an unfair and punitive new policy.

In local news sources — print and public radio – and in the blogosphere, the word is out: Virginia’s second-largest utility seeks to impose an unfair new fee on customers with solar arrays on their property over 10 kilowatts. Hundreds of Appalachian Power customers have already told the SCC that this fee punishes those who benefit their communities in so many ways by choosing to invest in clean energy for their homes, and it’s clear how this move by the company threatens to turn good candidates for new installations away from going solar.

To protect affordable clean energy options for customers, there is still time to take action and take this effort through the last mile. Come out and be in the room at the public hearing in Richmond at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, September 16 at the State Corporation Commission when citizen comments are heard on the utility’s proposal.

Contact me, your local campaigner Hannah Wiegard, at hannah[at]appvoices.org if you’re an ApCo customer and have questions, need a hand crafting testimony, or would like help arranging transportation to the hearing in downtown Richmond on Tuesday, September 16. See you there!

About gray matter: One artist’s experience with the health impacts of coal ash

Friday, September 5th, 2014 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note }Today’s guest to the Front Porch is artist Caroline Armijo, who has seen too many friends and family die from cancer she suspects was caused by a toxic coal ash pit in her North Carolina community. This originally appeared on Caroline’s website.

Caroline Armijo lives in Stokes County and is speaking out about the health threat of Duke Energy's massive coal ash pit in her community.

Caroline Armijo lives in Stokes County and is speaking out about the health threat of Duke Energy’s massive coal ash pit in her community.

“Gray Matter” is the first piece I created for a series I started in 2010. I began working on Gray Matter a couple of days before my friend was about to undergo her second brain surgery of the summer. I was worried. I promised her that I would pray for her. And I did. Day and night. It felt like an obsession. And my faith was faltering. A couple of weeks earlier, I had prayed all week for Hansel, my childhood neighbor, who never recovered from a biopsy on his brain tumor. A few days later, my aunt’s sister died of a rare form of leukemia within ten days of learning she had it. I was overwhelmed.

The next morning I woke to a story on the radio about the fish in the Potomac River. I thought, “It’s the water.” And a simple web search lead me to discovering the connection between coal ash and cancer. It also led me to Dennis Lemly, a professor at Wake Forest University, who has been studying the fish population for thirty years. He has written countless reports and pleas to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Obviously, fish are an important look at how water impacts the human health system. But no one was making an obvious connection that, yes, in fact, the people in the community are sick. So I emailed and told him.

In my five years in Washington D.C., I have only known three people with cancer, and only one of those have died. In the last six months alone, I have known five people who have died from my hometown in Stokes County, North Carolina.
Coal ash gives you a one in fifty chance of getting cancer. Unfortunately, the statistics seem to be much worse at home than estimated in the published reports. When I discussed this with a friend from home, she said that her prayer group included two people with cancer out of four.

Maybe I feel so strongly about this after watching my dad’s twin sister, Cheryl, fight a courageous battle against non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She passed away in April 2006, after I moved to D.C. the previous year. I was six hours away from my family. It was one of the hardest things I have ever dealt with.

A couple of years later, her neighbor Jackie, from directly across the street, died of the exact same kind of cancer. They could see each other’s houses from their front windows. Cancer is not contagious. What are the chances of that happening?

"Gray Matter," by Caroline Armijo.

“Gray Matter,” by Caroline Armijo.

I did what I do when I don’t know what else to do. I began working on an art project that ultimately became Gray Matter. I had partially excavated/destroyed the book, Your God Is Too Small, a couple of years ago; it was in two pieces and looked like a couple of capital D’s. I went to the studio, picked up the book, gathered my scalpel (a real surgeon’s knife) and blades, and headed home with all of these lost loved ones in my mind.

On 10/10/10, while thousands of organizations around the world gathered to do something for the environment, I worked on my environmental justice art. Mom and I spent the entire day in Friendship and didn’t use the car – which is hard for Stokes County. I went to the graveyard and rubbed the gravestones of our church members who had passed away from cancer. I was not able to include Hansel, because his headstone was not up yet. But I did include his best friend, whom he loved to fish with, and died a few years earlier from a brain stem tumor. In all, I included seven members of Friendship, plus a rubbing of my friend Anita‘s grave.

And after I sewed together the two sides of the book, I needed something to give the book structure. Tucked between the pages of the original book are the rolls of collected grave rubbings.

Anita, more than any other person in the community, likely knew the full impact of cancer. She was the third generation to run her family funeral home. She was also a member of the aforementioned prayer group, which gathered weekly. As I look back of the dates, I have to think that her final prayer was answered. On June 21, the EPA decided to receive petitions regarding the unregulated coal ash. Anita passed away on June 22.

Should the federal government regulate coal ash? Or let industry continue to regulate it, which means do nothing? The strictest regulation would require coal ash to be cleaned up–put into lined ponds, instead of the current unlined ponds that have leaked in the local water systems — ensuring that a freak accident won’t result in a flood in Walnut Cove or Pine Hall, as predicted in this EPA report. That also means the coal ash can’t fly around through the air.

So I am optimistic that the thousands and thousands of prayers flowing from Stokes County, and throughout the rest of the country, over the years have finally been heard. Now we have an opportunity (maybe an obligation) to follow through with our requests. Please sign this petition in support of the full cleanup and closure of coal ash dumps in the Belews Creek community.