Posts Tagged ‘North Carolina’

North Carolinians speak out against fracking: Are elected officials listening?

Monday, October 20th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina and Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina lead the procession to the governor’s office.

Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina and Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina lead the procession to the governor’s office.

More than two dozen environmental and social justice groups came together recently to hand deliver 59,500 petition signatures to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, calling on him and other elected officials to reinstate the ban on hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling for natural gas in the state.

Groups of the Frack Free N.C. Alliance, which include environmental organizations, environmental justice groups and grassroots organizations, have been working diligently all across the state to educate citizens about the potential impacts of fracking and encourage them to get involved. The nearly 60,000 petition signatures are a testament to the strong opposition to fracking throughout North Carolina.

Despite a forecast of rain, the organizations and supporters gathered at the governor’s office last Tuesday to rally and hold a press conference before hand delivering the petitions to McCrory’s staff (the governor, unsurprisingly, was unavailable to receive the petitions). Supporters held anti-fracking signs, images of North Carolina’s unique landscape, and art created by citizens portraying the dangers of fracking and the value of clean water.

The speakers came from all across the state, and included Kathy Rigsbee from Yadkin-Davie Against Fracking, an every-day citizen and mother turned activist, Hope Taylor, director of Clean Water for N.C., the founding organization of the Frack Free Alliance, and Luke Crawford from EnvironmentaLEE, a grassroots organization in Lee County, home to the largest deposits of natural gas in the state.

Sarah Kellogg, Appalachian Voices' North Carolina field organizer, speaks to the crowd about the amazing contribution of westerners to the petition and the anti-fracking movement.

Sarah Kellogg, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina field organizer, speaks to the crowd about the amazing contribution of westerners to the petition and the anti-fracking movement.

I was honored to speak on behalf of the numerous grassroots organizations from western North Carolina that contributed significantly to the petition and the anti-fracking movement sweeping across the state. Those organizations include the Coalition Against Fracking in western N.C., Frack Free Madison County, and community groups from Swain and Jackson counties.

As the sun came out, we began carrying boxes of the signed petitions into the governor’s office. As the petitions were passed from person to person and on into the building, elementary students on a field trip joined us in chanting “Frack Free N.C.!”

Governor McCrory has yet to acknowledge the concerns of the 59,500 signees on the petition, though it is clear that opposition to fracking across North Carolina has grown as more citizens learn about the risks associated with the practice.

In August and September, 1,800 North Carolinians attended Mining and Energy Commission hearings on the proposed rules to regulate fracking. The overwhelming majority of commenters opposed fracking. The MEC reports that they received between 100,000-200,000 additional written comments addressing the rules and that the majority suggested the rules be strengthened. According to Commissioner Jim Womack, about half the comments were statements opposing fracking. Womack told reporters that those “didn’t really count.” Clearly, thousands of North Carolinians oppose fracking, the question is, are our elected officials listening to us?

The organizations and citizen groups of Frack Free N.C. promise to continue fighting to protect North Carolina’s air, water, communities, property values and way of life from the dangers of fracking.

Corporate windfall lets N.C. utilities charge customers under outdated tax rate

Thursday, October 16th, 2014 - posted by brian
A recent decision by the N.C. Utilities Commission allows Duke Energy and other public utilities to boost profits by charging customers under a corporate tax rate that the state legislature cut last year. Photo: The Duke Energy Center in Charlotte, N.C.

A recent decision by the N.C. Utilities Commission allows Duke Energy and other public utilities to boost profits by charging customers under a corporate tax rate that the state legislature cut last year. Photo: The Duke Energy Center in Charlotte, N.C.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission is tasked with regulating public utilities operating in the state and the rates they charge for services that millions of North Carolinians use every day.

So it’s no surprise that a decision by a majority (4-3) of the seven-member commission to allow Duke Energy and other utilities to charge customers using an outdated, and inflated, corporate tax rate is rankling their dissenting colleagues, government watchdogs and N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper.

As The Charlotte Observer reports, the commission (somehow) decided that even though the legislature cut North Carolina’s corporate income tax rate from 6.9 percent to 5 percent last year, utilities can continue charging customers at 6.9 percent and pocket the difference.

In their dissent, three Democratic commissioners called the decision a corporate windfall that “allows the utilities to charge ratepayers in perpetuity to collect for taxes that the utilities no longer pay.” Yeah, it’s messed up.

The rate individual utilities, including electric, gas and water companies, are able to charge their customers could change the next time they seek rate adjustments. But even then, the dissenting commissioners warned, ratepayers will never be refunded the over-collected funds; the utilities have simply been afforded an unearned gain at the expense of North Carolina ratepayers.”

This is all pretty scary for several reasons. Most importantly, perhaps, is the fundamental disagreement between commissioners on the issue of “single-issue ratemaking,” or when and how adjustments in tax structures should influence the amount utility customers see on their bills.

Although Republican commissioners said they sympathized with the points made by the dissenting commissioners, they claimed that the “doctrine against single-issue ratemaking in full force in this state, designed to prevent changes to utility rates outside general rate cases, should be adhered to except in limited, closely circumscribed situations.”

“The insubstantial and immaterial changes at issue in this docket do not fit within the exception,” Republican commissioners wrote. “The limitations should be preserved to prevent single-issue ratemaking in the future when tax rates increase in insubstantial and immaterial ways.” No word on who decides what constitutes substantial and material changes, or why this shouldn’t be considered a limited, closely circumscribed situation.

But maybe they’re right. After all, Duke spokeswoman Lisa Parrish told The Charlotte Observer that, if Duke decides to stop sharing the tax savings with its ratepayers, its customers would only see a 17 cent increase on their monthly bill. Progress customers would pay 9 cents more each month.

Overall, the charges could help Duke Energy, Duke-Progress, Dominion North Carolina and PSNC Energy bring in around $21 million more a year.

That’s not so bad, right? Just ignore that you’re paying extra for a corporate tax rate that no longer exists. Parrish of Duke Energy also said that a little bump in North Carolinians’ electric bills wouldn’t really hurt them because it would go toward operating expenses or it could be spent on programs with broad community benefits. Hopefully they remember that when a real discussion about how to address the state’s coal ash problem comes up.

Another thing: You also may remember that HB 998, the bill that lowered corporate taxes in North Carolina, did much more than cut taxes for big corporations. It also more than doubled sales taxes on electricity from 3 percent to 7 percent. The commission approved a rate increase related to that change back in May, and over the summer, monthly bills of Duke customers increased by around 50 cents. Last I heard, the company isn’t sharing that burden with its customers.

Meanwhile, for three consecutive quarters, Duke has received a larger rate of return and rate of equity, the profit a company generates with shareholders’ money, than authorized by state regulators, in this case, the utilities commission. The Charlotte Business Journal reported that it is the first time since 2003 that the utility has significantly exceeded the returns set by the commission.

Finally, it’s understandable that the vast majority of the commission’s activities are not scrutinized the way major decisions, such as the 5.1 percent rate increase it granted Duke Energy last year or the merger between Duke and Progress Energy that the commission approved the year before, have been. But in this case, the commission used its discretion to not include Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat expected to run for governor in 2016, or the Public Staff, which represents the interest of consumers on issues before the commission.

Now Cooper says he plans to appeal the decision to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, and the Public Staff are weighing an appeal.

Oh, and the eventual decision of whether Duke will be allowed to saddle its ratepayers with the cost of cleaning up its leaky, polluting coal ash ponds across the state — that quagmire will land in the commission’s lap too.

This isn’t just about about the pennies added to our monthly electric bills — even though those pennies are piling up and becoming dollars — and, as the dissenting commissioners wrote, for families struggling to pay their utility bills, “every cent counts.”

It’s bigger than that. It’s about the commission adhering to the first tenet of its mission statement: to provide just and reasonable rates and charges for public utility services.

Community Members Gather for Blue Ridge Energy Efficiency Kick-off

Thursday, October 16th, 2014 - posted by Eliza Laubach
Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil speaks about the Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign.

Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil speaks about the Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign.

Did you miss the party? Last Thursday, Energy Savings for Appalachia hosted a launch party for our new campaign focusing on Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp.

Energy efficiency advocates and residents facing high energy costs gathered in our downtown Boone office to hear about the campaign and how they can get involved in our outreach efforts. Local business owners, students, farmers and families spilled out of the conference room as we brainstormed different ways to educate the community about our exciting High Country Home Energy Makeover contest and to gather signatures for our petition calling on Blue Ridge Electric to provide more energy efficiency programs.

What are we asking for? Blue Ridge Electric provides electricity to Ashe, Alleghany, Caldwell and Watauga counties, and some of Wilkes and Avery counties, excluding the town of Boone. Last winter, thousands of people served by Blue Ridge Electric could not afford to pay their bills and their electricity service was shut off. This is of particular concern given that 23 percent of Blue Ridge Electric members live at or below the poverty line, and we want to help families find solutions to their high electric bills.

Group brainstorming yields many great ideas!

Group brainstorming yields many great ideas!

That is where on-bill energy efficiency financing comes in. As Sam Zimmerman, owner of Sunny Day Homes, said at the party, most people do not have the disposable income to make large-scale home energy upgrades but would greatly benefit from them. With on-bill financing, the cooperative utility provides a loan for members to pay for home energy retrofits, and the loan is repaid on the member’s electric bill. Because so much energy is saved through the efficiency upgrades, the member’s electric bill is always lower than it was, even while they pay back the loan! By providing on-bill financing, utilities can help a wider range of homeowners and even renters make improvements to their home that would lower their energy use and electric bill.

So far, Blue Ridge Electric has rejected the idea of offering an on-bill financing program, citing lack of substantial member support as one of their primary reasons. This came as a surprise to Blue Ridge Electric members at the launch party. We are working to demonstrate that there actually is significant member support by circulating a petition, presenting to community groups and going door-to-door in local neighborhoods. Additionally, the Home Energy Makeover contest will not only help a few families whose homes could use efficiency upgrades now, it will also highlight a need for an on-bill finance program.

Kent Walker (left), a home energy contractor, and John Kidda, a builder, discuss all things energy efficiency over pizza and beer.

Kent Walker (left), a home energy contractor, and John Kidda, a builder, discuss all things energy efficiency over pizza and beer.

Chatter filled the room as large sheets of paper were filled with names of local businesses, community organizations, churches and other places where we can reach community members. Volunteers came up with innovative methods of outreach, such as utilizing technology or using church signboards, and signed up to help us with our ongoing canvassing project.

It was exciting to see folks be so enthused about our campaign, to hear a homeowner’s personal story detailing how much energy efficiency programs could help, and to strive for inclusion in the process of organizing a community around an issue.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings team has followed viable pathways of outreach, but the power of people coming together to focus their hands and hearts on helping us, which in turn helps them, enhances the benefit of our outreach, as involvement sparks meaning within concerned community members.

October is National Energy Action Month and National Cooperative Month, and there is no better time than now to focus on our local electric cooperative to provide services that will help members lower their energy use. Sign our Blue Ridge Electric petition or send a letter to your utility. Send us an email at energysavings@appvoices.org for volunteer opportunities, and, if you are a member of Blue Ridge Electric and are in need of support for reducing your energy costs, apply for the contest!

Atlantic Coast Pipeline Proposal Advances

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

By Brian Sewell

Duke Energy, Dominion Resources and other partners are teaming up to build a 550-mile pipeline to better access natural gas produced in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, where fracking has proliferated in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which the companies hope will be in service by 2019, would begin in north-central West Virginia, snake through 10 Virginia Piedmont counties and bisect North Carolina before terminating near the South Carolina border. A lateral extension near the Virginia-North Carolina border would stretch to the coast.

Image Courtesy of Dominion Resources

Image Courtesy of Dominion Resources

If the pipeline is built, Duke’s gas-burning power plants would be the primary customers and capture nearly half of the projected 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas pumped through the pipeline each day.

Dominion Resources shares the majority ownership stake in the pipeline with Duke and will also serve as the lead builder. Dominion began preliminary survey work in May, which created a stir along the proposed route and spawned a movement of concerned landowners and communities months before the plan was officially announced.

In September, a coalition of 22 groups, including the Southern Environmental Law Center and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, emerged as the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance with the sole purpose of raising the alarm about the proposed pipeline. The groups say the planned route puts some of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the eastern U.S. at risk, such as portions of the George Washington and Monongahela national forests.

The companies claim building the pipeline will create construction jobs and spur industrial development. Governors Pat McCrory of North Carolina, Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, and Earl Ray Tomblin of West Virginia have all heralded the pipeline’s economic potential.

McAuliffe, who has been outspoken in his support for the pipeline while opposing fracking in Virginia, found himself in an awkward spot at the first meeting of the state’s climate change commission on Sept. 10. Claiming the pipeline has “nothing to do with fracking,” McAuliffe later added, “I do not support fracking as governor of the Commonwealth.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline must gain approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and state utility commissions, and there are several opportunities for public input during the process.

Energy Savings Advances in Tennessee and North Carolina

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

Our Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign has made great strides since our kickoff 18 months ago, but we’re only just getting started!

This September in Tennessee, Appalachian Voices participated in an energy efficiency “retreat” that brought the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association and six of its member cooperatives together with a number of state agencies and numerous experts in energy efficiency finance. The purpose was to begin designing a statewide on-bill energy efficiency finance program that will help low-income residents reduce their electricity bills. Appalachian Voices not only helped make the retreat happen, we are also playing a key role in determining how the program will be funded and implemented.

While we are energized by Tennessee’s progress, North Carolina’s electric co-ops have yet to commit to providing energy efficiency finance options. Because of this, on October 9 we launched a new campaign focused on Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. in the High Country of western North Carolina. Our goal is to generate strong member support to encourage the electric co-op to develop an on-bill energy efficiency financing program, one that primarily helps low-income households.

The poverty rate among Blue Ridge Electric members is 23%, meaning that many households in the High Country struggle to pay their electricity bills each winter. As one of North Carolina’s largest electric co-ops, however, Blue Ridge Electric should be offering financial support that helps reduce their members’ electricity bills. Six other co-ops in North Carolina offer on-bill finance options, and it is time that Blue Ridge Electric step up and do the same. To support the campaign, we are also launching a High Country Home Energy Makeover contest. See page 6 for more information.

To learn more or get involved, call (828) 262-1500 or email Rory McIlmoil at rory@appvoices.org

North Carolinians React to Proposed Fracking Rules

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

By Brian Sewell

The N.C. Mining and Energy Commission held public hearings in August and September on the proposed rules it has put forth to regulate fracking in the state. At each of the four hearings held across the state, North Carolinians overwhelmingly expressed concerns with the rules’ shortcomings and the state’s rush to begin fracking.

In oral comments, hundreds of citizens requested improvements to the more than 120 rules proposed by the MEC related to everything from inspection protocols, chemical disclosure, monitoring and reporting requirements and more. The MEC also accepted written comments from the public between July 15 and Sept. 30.

“We can live without shale gas but not without clean air and water,” said Christine Carlson, who spoke at the Raleigh hearing.

Although the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources recently postponed plans to explore the natural gas potential of seven western North Carolina counties, the turnout to the final hearing in Cullowhee was comparable to those held in the Piedmont, where fracking permits could be issued as soon as spring 2015. Nearly 600 people packed the hearing in the mountains and 102 people signed up to speak for three minutes each.

A video and multiple reports following the hearing indicated that, of the handful of fracking supporters present, several were entirely unfamiliar with the practice. They were given pro-fracking t-shirts by a group affiliated with the American Petroleum Institute and were bussed to the hearing from Winston-Salem, N.C. One man, who identified himself to The Sylva Herald as a veteran staying at the Bethesda Center For The Homeless, said he felt misled and was told fracking would help the environment.

The MEC plans to submit final rules to the state’s Rules Review Commission by Nov. 20.

Long-Awaited Coal Ash Bill Leaves Communities at Risk

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

By Sarah Kellogg

This September, North Carolina’s first bill regulating the disposal of coal ash became law. Legislators praised the law as the strongest in the nation, but environmental groups and citizens living next to coal ash ponds say it is not strong enough.

North Carolina’s toxic coal ash, the by-product of burning coal for electricity, is stored in wet impoundments at 14 Duke Energy facilities across the state, all of which are leaking toxic heavy metals. After a faulty pipe at a Duke Energy coal ash impoundment spilled 39,000 tons of the waste into the Dan River earlier this year, state legislators responded to public concern by promising to draft the strongest coal ash regulations in the nation.

Citizen and environmental groups say the resulting legislation does not offer assurance of a timely, complete cleanup to 10 impacted communities. Instead, the law requires full cleanup of the four sites Duke Energy already agreed to remediate after public outcry earlier this year: Dan River, Sutton, Asheville, and Riverbend. The day the bill became law, Environment North Carolina and partner organizations delivered 40,000 petition signatures to N.C. Governor Pat McCrory’s office demanding the full cleanup of all 14 sites.

The bill leaves the fates of the remaining 10 sites in the hands of a special coal ash commission comprised of six appointees from the general assembly and three from the governor. Governor McCrory, who worked for Duke Energy for 28 years, stated that the commission is unconstitutional because the governor should be responsible for appointing the majority of a commission that executes legislative orders. Although he opposed the legislation, he did not veto it and allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

According to the bill, the commission will designate a rating of high, intermediate or low risk for each of the remaining 10 sites, and will also set timetables for the completion of cleanup, which Duke may appeal. The commission is also required to hold public hearings regarding cleanup plans at each site.

For coal ash sites deemed low-risk, the law allows “cap-in-place,” a storage method where water is drained from the coal ash pond and a cover is placed on top. Cap-in-place does not prevent groundwater contamination or the risk of dam failure.

The law also allows Duke Energy to request permission from the state to charge ratepayers for cleanup costs, though polls show that most North Carolinians think Duke’s shareholders should pay for all costs. Additionally, it weakens current laws protecting groundwater by allowing the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources to grant permits for illegal discharges of contaminated water from the coal ash ponds, rather than requiring Duke Energy to stop the source of the pollution.

Caroline Armijo helped deliver petitions opposing the bill to the governor’s office. She told reporters, “If coal ash is making us sick, then our leaders need to do something about it—now. We have a right to lead healthy lives.”

Health Research Disregarded in Mountaintop Removal Mine Permitting

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

By Brian Sewell

In both West Virginia and Kentucky this year, federal courts have ruled against groups that believe scientific research into the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining on health should be considered by the agencies in charge of issuing permits.

In August, a federal judge for the Southern District of West Virginia sided with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and ruled that the agency did not act “arbitrarily” when it issued a permit for a 725-acre mountaintop removal mine in Boone County, W.Va., without considering health impacts. A coalition of environmental groups, including Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Coal River Mountain Watch, asserted that research the Corps called “ambiguous” in fact showed a strong link between mountaintop removal and health impacts, such as higher instances of birth defects, cancer and other diseases.

The judge claimed that too many of the studies environmental groups presented as evidence focused on health effects associated with coal in general and made no stated connection to mining discharges in streams below mountaintop removal sites.

The decision echoes a ruling six months ago in Kentucky in a case between the Corps and a coalition led by Earthjustice, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Appalachian Mountain Advocates over the 756-acre Stacy Branch mine. In that case, the Corps argued it was only responsible for considering the effects of dumping mining debris in streams — not the environmental or health impacts of the entire mining operation. That responsibility, the Corps contends, belongs to state agencies in charge of issuing mountaintop removal permits.

Currently, there is no clear agency tasked with studying or addressing the connection between mountaintop removal and health. Meanwhile, a bill that would place a moratorium on new permits until a federal study into the health impacts of mountaintop removal is completed sits stagnant in Congress.

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.

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.