“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?
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.