My Testimony at the US Civil Rights Commission on Coal Ash in Walnut Cove

The following is my testimony from the United States Commission on Civil Rights Public Meeting, Examining Health and Environmental Issues Related to Coal Ash Disposal In N.C. on Thursday, April 7th, 2016.


This was easily the pinnacle moment of our organizing around coal ash. Three hearings were planned around the country – Alabama, which was canceled at the last minute, North Carolina and one in Indiana. This happened in Walnut Cove, ya’ll. On Monday, April 7th, in our tiny little town, in the library, there were rows and rows of people in suits lined up to testify. It was just like something you would see televised on C-SPAN. In that space, I felt more like I was in Washington, DC than in Walnut Cove. And even though one of the commission’s panelists deliberately framed two of the people testifying on my panel for a political sounds bite, the room was filled with a powerful love more fierce than I can put into words.


My prayer is that some seed was planted that day that will permanently shift the encapsulation and disposal process of coal ash in North Carolina, the United States and the entire world. Pretty radical, I know! But I am an optimist.

I found that what my original speech was a little bit longer than this. I knew my time was short and what I had to say was long. I began to skim over the text and use my text as an outline, which is better. It is one thing to write something and completely different to read it out loud.

I apologize for the crazy formatting, but this was taken from the court reporter’s transcript. I have made a few edits for clarification. But if there are others that you may find, I am happy to update them. Additional resources I refer to in my speech are found at the bottom of the page, along with press from the event.

Good morning.· Thank you for
14· ·coming today.· My name is Caroline Armijo.· I live
15· ·in Greensboro, and I’m a Stokes County native.· My
16· ·family came down on the Great Wagon Road in the
17· ·early 1700’s.· That’s not unusual for this area.
18· ·Most of the people you will hear from today have
19· ·lived on this land for generations.· Some have
20· ·never left.· Others have returned by choice.
21· ·Because of this, people are very passionate about
22· ·this issue and their connection to the land and
23· ·the community.
24· · · · Over the years, this same stretch of land on
25· ·the map next to the Dan River has been home to the
·1· ·Sauratown Indians, one of the Hairston Plantations,
·2· ·Duke Energy’s most efficient steam station, and
·3· ·the massive 12.5 million-ton coal ash pit.· It is
·4· ·now threatened by fracking.
·5· · · · In 2010 I began to doubt my faith.· I didn’t
·6· ·believe that our prayers were being heard.· I was
·7· ·living in Washington, D.C., and I knew that the
·8· ·rates of illnesses and death wasn’t normal.· My
·9· ·good friend from middle school, Danielle Bailey-
10· ·Lash, was undergonig her second craniotomy for a
11· ·stage 4 brain tumor at the age of 34.· She didn’t
12· ·drink.· She didn’t smoke.· So it didn’t make sense
13· ·as to why she was sick, except she lived at the
14· ·end of Pine Hall Road, where Belews Creek Steam
15· ·Station is located.
16· · · · That summer, the funeral home director, who
17· ·everybody loved, died of breast cancer.· My mom’s
18· ·cousin died within two weeks of her diagnosis of a
19· ·rare form of leukemia, and my childhood neighbor,
20· ·an avid fisherman at Belews Lake, died from a
21· ·brain tumor.
22· · · · These were all people from the larger
23· ·community who chose to recreate at Belews Lake.
24· ·People were dying so quickly I feared that the
25· ·scrubbers installed in 2008 had created a super
1· ·toxic coal ash that made cancer incredibly
·2· ·efficient.· In December of 2015, this past fall, a
·3· ·woman was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and
·4· ·died before the morning.
·5· · · · I contacted Dennis Lemley, who had studied
·6· ·the fish population at Belews Lake for the last —
·7· ·over 20 years.· His studies found that 19 species
·8· ·were wiped out during the· 80s and the remaining
·9· ·fish species was severely deformed.· I wanted to
10· ·let him know that the people were dying too.
11· · · · As you know, coal ash was not regulated in
12· ·2010.· So in 2012 we moved — my family moved back
13· ·to North Carolina.· My first cousin was diagnosed
14· ·with a stage 3 brain tumor.· When he was first
15· ·married, he lived under the smoke stacks.· This
16· ·was especially devastating because his wife’s best
17· ·friend had just passed away a year earlier
18· ·from a brain tumor.· She was one of four people in
19· ·their 50’s who had died. She was the last one to die
20· ·from that group.
21· · · · I contacted Avner Vengosh at Duke University.
22· ·He had published a paper related to the increased
23· ·pollution in rivers and streams as a result of the
24· ·new scrubbers.· He put me in touch with Earth
25· ·Justice, who put me in touch with Appalachian
·1· ·Voices, and we began to get organized.
·2· · · · Once we began learning about the lives of
·3· ·those who are considered Duke’s actual neighbors,
·4· ·the stories were much more horrific.· Today you’re
·5· ·gonna meet a family where everybody in the house
·6· ·has had cancer.· The first — even beginning at
·7· ·the age of 9.
·8· · · · Other families or neighbors include 4 people
·9· ·at the opposite end of Pine Hall Road who have all
10· ·contracted leukemia or lymphoma around the same
11· ·time, in their early 20s.
12· · · · Two years ago, while the nation watched in
13· ·horror as the coal ash poured into the Dan River
14· ·in Eden, my Facebook feed was full of prayers for
15· ·a 10-year-old boy who lived straight through the
16· ·woods from Danielle’s home.· He had been in
17· ·remission from his brain tumor, a tumor that was
18· ·rumored so hard that a needle could not penetrate
19· ·it to take a biopsy.
20· · · · After a summer playing outside, he returned
21· ·to the doctor to learn that his lungs were filled
22· ·with tumors.· The community rallied around this
23· ·little boy, but their prayers were not answered.
24· · · · Andree Davis sold everything that she had to
25· ·move back to her family homestead.· She left
·1· ·Myrtle Beach, retired to the country, and,
·2· ·inadvertently, on the banks of the massive coal
·3· ·ash pit.· Her body is covered in lesions from the
·4· ·water.· Her skin improved once she stopped bathing
·5· ·in her water, but the scars remain.· Every three
·6· ·to four days she’s able to shave the ash off her
·7· ·bedspread with a sweater razor.· Water bottles and
·8· ·recycling have overtaken her home.· She’s living
·9· ·on a fixed income and unable to leave.· She feels
10· ·trapped in a nightmare.
11· · · · Danielle also feels trapped.· She cannot sell
12· ·her home and does not have the savings to abandon
13· ·what she’s invested in her home, and she still has
14· ·a mortgage to pay.· Her brain tumor is in
15· ·remission, but it can never be fully removed.· She
16· ·lives without a portion of her skull behind her
17· ·brain — behind her ear.· She has to be on guard
18· ·wherever she goes, mindful of where she sits in
19· ·restaurants.
20· · · · A story in the UK’s Ecologist quotes
21· ·Danielle.· All I really want to do is leave, but I
22· ·can’t.· She says, I feel like a bad parent, but we
23· ·don’t have anywhere to go.
24· · · · After four years of organizing with the help
25· ·of Appalachian Voices, people are starting to make
1· ·connections to their health and the reality of the
·2· ·monster buried in our midst.· The tragedy is that
·3· ·the coal ash is hidden in plain sight, around
·4· ·curves and behind trees.· The ash basin is 12-
·5· ·point million tons of waste.· As a community, we
·6· ·are scared of the broad reach of this toxicity.
·7· · · · Because of the test drill for fracking, we
·8· ·know that the water table stands from 89 feet to
·9· ·over 320 feet.· The dam wall stands 140 feet high,
10· ·and the pit of ash is 12 to 14 stories deep.· So
11· ·that is over 280 acres of coal ash sitting 40 feet
12· ·deep in our water table.
13· · · · We are also concerned because we know that
14· ·two old streams run beneath this area, and we know
15· ·that 20 drains have
16· ·been draining water into the Dan River
17· ·continuously since 2006.· Duke treats Madison’s
18· ·drinking water because of the bromides created
19· ·with the chlorine, and Rockingham County has
20· ·the highest ALS levels in the country.
21· · · · We know that Belews ground water from the ash
22· ·also has a higher rate of radioactivity than other
23· ·of the 14 sites around the state.
24· · · · Point blank, we refuse to settle for capping
25· ·in place.· I am concerned that Duke’s control over
·1· ·our state and local government means that the
·2· ·entities that are meant to protect the people are
·3· ·protecting Duke instead.
·4· · · · Danielle’s home was originally Duke employee
·5· ·housing.· The couple in the home before her had
·6· ·had prostate cancer and a the rare neurological
·7· ·disease of GBS.· The owner prior to that also had
·8· ·cancer.· So in May of 2014, Danielle contacted the
·9· ·state to have her water tested.· The hydrologist
10· ·asked if Danielle lived in Stokes County, because
11· ·if she did she would have to share her results
12· ·with Duke.
13· · · · Danielle lives in Forsyth County, so she
14· ·didn’t.· Her home has an elevated radon level at a
15· ·rate of — at 4,255 pCi/L,
16. ·but she was advised to keep her
17· ·showers short.
18· · · · A member of our statewide coalition, Alliance
19· ·of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash, also
20· ·faced an experience of being threatened by
21· ·authorities which she sees as chilling and a
22· ·violation of civil rights.· She followed a truck
23· ·from the Lee Plant all the way to the Chatham
24· ·Landfill.· She asked the landfill operator, who
25· ·was happy to show her around, and asked the
·1· ·drivers did they know what they were hauling?
·2· ·They didn’t.· They said it looked like wet mud.
·3· · · · When she got home, the Sheriff called her and
·4· ·told her if she had taken any pictures her phone
·5· ·would be confiscated and threatened to never come
·6· ·around any of the facilities again.· This is a
·7· ·public road and a public place.
·8· · · · Furthermore, DEQ underwent a website switch
·9· ·one week before the March hearings began.· This
10· ·meant that the public lost all of the links
11· ·providing information about the coal ash and the
12· ·site locations.· My previous profession included
13· ·web management for a federal contract.· This is
14· ·not an amateur mistake one makes preparing for
15· ·such an important period in your work.
16· · · · With the recent changing of water level
17· ·standards, two recipients of the rescinded do not
18· ·drink letters requested updated detailed
19· ·information to explain why DEQ changed the levels.
20· ·It included a map for vanadium, a study for
21· ·vanadium in drinking water from 1976 to 1979.
22· ·This is a 40-year-old study.· The red dots from
23· ·the vanadium belt look identical to the Duke belt.
24· · · · Duke also has a chilling effect on our
25· ·organization’s efforts.· They have held more than
1· ·one event in direct conflict with our publicized
·2· ·events.· First, their Eden press conference was
·3· ·held at the same time as our press conference
·4· ·calling out Governor McCrory for
·5· ·hosting a secret dinner at the Governor’s Mansion
·6· ·with Duke officials and DEQ officials.
·7· · · · This past month we planned a screening of
·8· ·Coal Ash Stories here at the library in Walnut
·9· ·Cove.· This is a series that informs the public
10· ·about the impacts of coal ash.· Duke planned an
11· ·open house to bottled water recipients only at the
12· ·exact same time as our screening.· Plus, Duke
13· ·representatives are present at all of the Coal Ash
14· ·Stories screening.· While I believe that is fair,
15· ·we have had attendees say that they are afraid to
16· ·speak out against Duke and wish that they had
17· ·known of their presence before saying anything.
18· · · · It has become increasingly clear that Duke
19· ·nor DEQ are willing to put forth any real
20· ·solutions.· The clean-up options that they are
21· ·offering are either cap or pollute in place or
22· ·dump it on another community in North Carolina or
23· ·across state lines.· Meanwhile, no one is keeping
24· ·track of where the coal ash is being taken.
25· · · · In February, I approached Professor Kunigal Shivakumar at
1· ·A&T University.· He’s been developing coal ash for
·2· ·reuse over the last 15 years.· Since December, he
·3· ·has been working on a way to encapsulate coal ash
·4· ·in a polymer.· I asked him if he would come up
·5· ·with a solution.· Until I met with him, he and his
·6· ·colleagues had no idea that coal ash was toxic.
·7· ·He said, once you know the truth you can begin to
·8· ·create a solution.
·9· · · · Even though he had been working with our
10· ·elected officials and DEQ employees, no one was
11· ·forthcoming about the real problems.· Now his team
12· ·has created a model for a half-ton solid block of
13· ·coal ash that could be used for storage. I
14· ·brought a poster that shows more information about
15· ·that.· This storage option would eliminate the
16· ·need for transportation, the cost of a landfill,
17· ·and oversight for monitoring for years to come.
18· ·We’re very excited about this opportunity and we
19· ·hope that it will bring new jobs and provide a new
20· ·industry with essentially a new raw material.
21· · · · But then I read an article this week,
22· ·concrete makers look to import ash from Asia.· As
23· ·we’re told in the article, coal ash now needs to
24· ·be reprocessed to reduce the carbon to bind with
25· ·cement.· Duke Energy, the nation’s largest utility
·1· ·company, is the only one in the country that does
·2· ·not do this processing.
·3· · · · Over the past few days, I spoke with three
·4· ·people working in different cement companies.· Two
·5· ·are active lobbyists around this very issue.
·6· ·Point blank, they are angry at Duke because Duke
·7· ·is not willing to sell the ash.· Here is a viable
·8· ·solution right under our noses and they are not
·9· ·willing to participate.
10· · · · I found this to be the most baffling.· In
11· ·South Carolina there are third-party industries
12· ·that do it for Duke.· These third-party vendors
13· ·want to build — pay and build up the
14· ·infrastructure and eagerly want to do it here, but
15· ·they want a guarantee of tons of ash from Duke,
16· ·but Duke would rather pay to bury it than have
17· ·someone to take and reuse their waste.
18· · · · Duke gets a fixed rate from the State
19· ·Utilities Commission, whereas the vendors provide
20· ·a variable rate of $18 to $30 per ton.· We have
21· ·spent the last month trying to convince the
22· ·government to clean up 108 million tons of coal
23· ·ash and these vendors want a guarantee of 100
24· ·million tons of coal ash.· So now the coal ash is
25· ·first come, first served, based on the vendors.
·1· ·Drivers will travel three hours one way to be
·2· ·turned away.· One person said that he followed the
·3· ·coal ash trucks because he could not understand
·4· ·why they wouldn’t sell him the ash.· They were
·5· ·taking the ash to the landfills.· Five — six
·6· ·years ago, Florida exported the ash.
·7· ·Now they are 100 percent import.
·8· · · · This is infuriating.· In a state that refused
·9· ·to expand Medicaid, the very people that are
10· ·paying exorbitant medical bills are paying for
11· ·Duke to permanently poison our citizens for
12· ·generations to come through the use of landfill
13· ·and capping in place, all thanks to our State
14· ·Utility Commission, while at the same time there’s
15· ·an entire industry begging to buy this reusable
16· ·material from Duke and is even undergoing a
17· ·national shortage.· We are importing China’s toxic
18· ·waste.
19· · · · This is a no-brainer.· The concrete industry
20· ·wants to use the coal ash because it lengthens the
21· ·life of our infrastructure, reduces the cost of
22· ·building materials by 20 to 40 percent, and
23· ·reduces freezing on the roadways, plus it meets a
24· ·legislative demand by DOT.· But most importantly,
25· ·this solution permanently encapsulates the coal
·1· ·ash and keeps it out of our bodies of our
·2· ·citizens.
·3· · · · CHAIR LAZO-CHADDERTON: Thank you, Ms. Armijo.

The Rest of My Comments
I have included a report from NCSU written for the Cement Industry to study the demand for coal ash in this area after Duke stated that there was no market for their ash. The reality is it is not the best financial incentive for their shareholders. The same article stated that over 180 ideas had been submitted to Duke, but none of them were able to meet industrial demand. Perhaps their unwillingness is related to having a state government run by your former employees.

After discussing regulation and his unawareness of the health risks, I told one of the cement guys about a dry landfill of ash on a family farm directly across from Raylen Vineyards in Davie County. He agreed that was a bad idea. He said, “Oh yeah, you don’t want that stuff laying around.”

Doing nothing is an affront to the civil rights issue. We have seen precedent set where doing nothing has in fact resulted in significant health issues where people claimed that wasn’t any problem. The time to act is now. We are open and ready.

Press from the Hearing
Federal Hearing on Coal Ash Held in Walnut Cove

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights chairman to residents near coal ash: ‘You will have an advocate’

How Coal Ash Impacts Civil Rights

Articles I Referenced
N.C. produces flawed study to dismiss cancer-cluster fears near Duke Energy coal plants

Concrete Makers Looks to Import Coal Ash

The Impact of Coal Combustion Residue Effluent on Water Resources: A North Carolina Example

Scientists find high levels of coal ash contamination in North Carolina rivers and lakes

Coal ash: America’s multi-billion ton toxic legacy

Report on Carcinogens Background Document for X Radiation & Gamma Radiation and Neutrons

Wildlife and the Coal Waste Policy Debate: Proposed Rules for Coal Waste Disposal Ignore Lessons from 45 Years of Wildlife Poisoning

Duke explains options for Belews Creek

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