Front Porch Blog

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

{ 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.

Welcome to our special feature where we invite guests to pull up a chair, sit a spell, and share their views on issues important to you.


  1. Carol Werner says:

    Thank you for telling this heartrending and terribly important story of what has happened in your community….how can there not be a moral imperative to clean up and prevent this kind of mess and the robbing of lives that is resulting from these horrendous impacts upon our environment and health. We must keep the issue alive and make sure that these critical local voices and stories be heard by decisionmakers in the private and public sector and in the media…..our society can and must do better than this….we must transition to a clean energy economy and prevent the kinds of dreadful damages that have befallen so many in so many places from these toxic exposures…..and companies must assume responsibility for cleaning up and preventing further contamination of communities and our natural resources from their wastes….

  2. FRED TARR says:

    ys, I support this effort to cast a new light on cause and effect of toxic coal ash seeding heavy metal layers in the earth and in a dump: the connection between the abundance of noxious chemicals in coal ash and a possible link with certain cancers affecting residents of Belwes Creek Community. I call for congressional hearings on coal ash dump procedures and a chemical analysis of sediment coal ash regarding proxinity to prevailing windss in gthe commniyt and water run-off platts

  3. Ronald Ney says:

    Here is something they do not tell you, at least not all at once.
    Typically, coal ash may contain but is not limited to asbestos, arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium, aluminum, antimony, barium, beryllium, boron, chlorine, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, thallium, vanadium, zinc, nitrates and nitrites, radioactive elements, dioxins and furans, and perhaps phosphates. The nitrates and nitrites can be converted to nitrosamines which are known carcinogens.
    • Radioactive elements for example are/];
    (uranium (U), thorium (Th), and their numerous decay products, including radium (Ra) and radon (Rn) (Radium (226 + 228)) (Of the 18 radio isotopes of radon, the important products to which it decays are polonium (Po)-218, lead (Pb)-214, bismuth (Bi)-214, and polonium (Po)-214)
    “All radionuclides are hazardous substances because they are designated generically as hazardous air pollutants by CAA section 112 and CERCLA section 101(14)(E) defines the term “hazardous substance” to include CAA hazardous air pollutants.”

    THE FOLLOWING IS QUOTED and you can see which ones cause problems such as cancer, lung, heart, birth defects and renal failure.

    Aluminum (Al) Lung disease, developmental problems
    Antimony (Sb) Eye irritation, heart damage, lung problems
    Arsenic (As) Multiple types of cancer, night blindness, heart disease, darkening of skin, diabetes type 2, stroke, hand warts
    Barium (Ba) Gastrointestinal problems, muscle weakness, heart problems
    Beryllium (Be) Lung cancer, pneumonia, respiratory problems
    Boron (B) Reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness
    Cadmium (Cd) kidney damage – leading to kidney stones and tubular damage, chronic renal failure, skeletal damage (osteoporosis and fractures) cancer
    Chromium (Cr) Cancer, ulcers and other stomach problems
    Chlorine (Cl) Respiratory distress
    Cobalt (Co) Lung/heart/liver/kidney problems, dermatitis
    Lead (Pb) Decreases in IQ, nervous system, developmental and behavioral problems
    Manganese (Mn) Nervous system, muscle problems, mental problems
    Mercury (Hg) Cognitive deficits, developmental delays, behavioral problems
    Molybdenum (Mo) Mineral imbalance, anemia, developmental problems
    Nickel (Ni) Cancer, lung problems, allergic reactions
    Selenium (Se) Birth defects, nervous system/reproductive problems
    Vanadium (V) Birth Defects, lung/throat/eye problems
    Zinc (Zn) Gastrointestinal effects, reproductive problems

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