When I first learned about coal ash in August 2010, I felt completely hopeless. Struggling with my faith, I created the mixed-media artwork “Gray Matter” out of the book “Your God is Too Small.” Since then I have been overwhelmed by the unfolding of a great movement on this issue. I am only one of a multitude of people working on the issue of coal ash across North Carolina and the country.
As an artist, I see my role as simple: sharing our story, praying and keeping the faith, and focusing on a vision for a better set of solutions.
In December 2017, I was awarded funding through the National Creative Placemaking Fund to develop The Lilies Project, a program of the Stokes County Arts Council in collaboration with Appalachian Voices and NC A&T State University. ArtPlace America is the funder of the grant.
Following is a rough timeline of posts that include many of my activities around coal ash, including my spiritual practices of art, my prayers, and other public speaking events.
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August – It all Started with Gray Matter
I was praying for my friend, who was undergoing her second craniotomy. I asked “What’s in the water?” and turned to my art for answers. There is always guidance in asking questions and creating art.
November – Marching Around the EPA
In 2010, we were living in Downtown DC, so I started sharing my concerns on Facebook. I also began speaking out by protesting with faith organizations. Lucy and I marched around the EPA.
December – Planting Seeds
In 2010, the EPA failed to classify coal ash as a hazardous material. My coal ash advocacy was ineffective. I knew nothing about organizing. I gave coal ash a rest.
Yet sharing my concerns with mom resulted in seeds being planted. She shared my concerns about coal ash with one of her dearest friends, Annie Brown. Annie began collecting names of neighbors and their illnesses.
March – We Need a Playground
After my first efforts at environmental advocacy ended in frustration, I fell into a seemingly easier project — advocating for a playground in Downtown DC. As part of that effort, I received training in advocacy and organizing through Washington Interfaith Network as a project of Calvary Baptist Church.
December – NPS Walking Tour
As our Downtown DC Playground work gained momentum, we hosted a pivotal walking tour with officials from the National Park Service and City Council Members. Because of that tour, a playground as part of a revamped Franklin Square is projected to come online in 2018, which all came out of our walking tour.
March – Waking Up to Fracking
While focused on a playground in DC, I began advocating for St. Philip’s Episcopal Church to physically remain in Germanton, as part of a larger community group back home. This group also tried to help preserve Sauratown Indian burial grounds as part of the sale of the historic Hairston Plantation, which was being bought by an out-of-state landowner. In the middle of the night, I realized this work’s connection to the new threat of fracking to coal ash in Belews Creek. The plantation’s prime farm land lies adjacent to the 12 million ton coal ash pond in Belews.
No Fracking in Stokes formed and quickly becomes a state leader against the legislature’s push to frack in NC.
June – Moved Home
In June 2012, we moved almost home to Greensboro, NC, which is forty-five minutes southeast of Belews Creek and an hour from my childhood home.
October – Back At It
My cousin was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I promptly reached out to Avner Vengosh of Duke University, who had just published an article about coal ash becoming more toxic with the addition of a new scrubbing technology from the Clean Smoke Stacks Act. He put me in touch with Earthjustice, who put me in touch with Appalachian Voices.
The Belews Creek community began organizing with the help of Appalachian Voices. This group became Residents for Coal Ash Clean-Up.
February – Dan River Spill
On Groundhog’s Day, coal ash began spilling into the Dan River in Eden. It took five days to contain the spill spewing from an old pipe. The spill is the third largest coal ash spill in US history. The Dan River plant is located about thirty miles downstream from Belews Creek, which includes a significantly larger coal ash pit containing 12 million tons of ash.
April – At What Cost?
The spill galvanized our efforts. Suddenly coal ash was a household name. We created the video “At What Cost?”
September – First Public Speaking Event
I spoke at a press conference for the first time in Raleigh. I also met impacted community members from around the state concerned about coal ash.
September 28th – Annie Brown passes away from a major heart attack.
December – A Look at Dragging Feet
As part of a Lenten practice, I reflected on one of my Souvenirs Series and tied my artwork more directly into my growth as an advocate.
January – Anniversary of the Dan River Spill
We planned a demonstration to remember the one-year anniversary of the Dan River Spill. I procrastinated writing my speech until the morning of the event. In the night, God gave me a prayer to share. The press conference evolved into a memorial for Annie Brown and all of the other loved ones we have lost in the community.
February – Mulling over Isaiah 58
After writing a personal update on my daughter’s first lost tooth, I began pondering over the notion of how to turn a curse into a blessing.
March – Do Not Drink the Water
Over 400 families around North Carolina received do not drink letters from the state because of high levels of heavy metals associated with coal ash found in their well water.
April – What You Seek is Already Yours
A look at my final piece from my Souvenir Series, which I discovered much later was a breaking away from my myopic art focus and falling full-time into coal ash advocacy.
May – Movement in Walnut Cove
A growing momentum around environmental justice issues found Walnut Cove at its epicenter. I spoke as part of the Moral Mondays events in Raleigh. Plus Walnut Cove hosted Kareena Gore and Rev. Barber. And there were several meetings at the Walnut Cove Town Council protesting test drilling for fracking in the Walnut Tree. Fracking and coal ash officially became aligned issues.
July – ACT Against Coal Ash
We held our first statewide meeting in Belews Creek where we formed Alliance of Carolinians Together against Coal Ash. The group is composed of the fourteen Duke Energy Sites, plus Lee and Chatham Counties, which are receiving coal ash as part of the Dan River Spill settlement. There we developed our unifying principles.
September – Seeking the Truth and An Urge to Pray
I was in the midst of seeking what truth needed to be revealed to heal this land and community. I created a piece of art, read local history and was asked to pray in Raleigh. For weeks, I felt the need to identify God as the Revealer of Great Secrets. I wrote my speech around these words.
December – “Final” Classifications
Belews is downgraded from the leaked ranking of high classification to an intermediate level. We do not want the site capped in place. A lower classification increases this risk.
January – An Epiphany on Epiphany
WRAL runs story of a secret dinner at the Governor’s Mansion with Duke, DEQ and Governor McCrory, a 28-year employee of Duke Energy. Shortly after fines of $25 million for one site was reduced to $7 million for all sites, or $500,000 each.
We held a series of press conferences to which the Governor refused to acknowledge the families living on bottled water and the GOP Spokesperson said we were a distraction to voters.
February – Sharing My Story
I share my story with coal ash, plus tips on how to organize around an issue.
In February, I began meeting with a group of scientists at NC A&T to discuss a new storage solution. They were unaware of the community impacts and shifted their research as a result.
March – DEQ Hearing and Maundy Thursday
We had a month of hearings for public comments at all of the sites around North Carolina. Ours fell on Maundy Thursday. We held communion as part of a prayer vigil prior to the hearing.
April – US Civil Rights Commission on Coal Ash
We hosted the US Civil Rights Commission on Coal Ash in Walnut Cove, one of only two in the country.
My Testimony at the US Civil Rights Commission on Coal Ash in Walnut Cove
May – Prayer for a Better Way
We began setting our vision on solutions. This is a prayer I shared at a press conference in Raleigh.
July – Sharing Clean Up Solutions
I took an encapsulated coal ash block with me to DC on my second trip with Moms Clean Air Force and shared it with Senator Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Plus I was the only community member as part of NIEHS Superfund Webinar as part of the UNC Well Empowered Project.
September – Sharing Hope
Our story became a message of hope growing louder and clearer. I spoke about coal ash and fracking as part of Beloved Community’s People’s Power Party and a prayer vigil for Good Neighbor Day and the two-year anniversary of Annie Brown’s death. This story was also captured as part of the Climate Listening Project, sponsored by Clean Air Moms Action.
January – No Laughing Matter
Zach Galifianakis interviews Tracey Edwards for the America Divided Series. Screenings happen across the state.
February – Taking Action
This year, ACT is focusing on lobbying the NCGA, which was a success. I added a prayer, because I told Nick, that’s what I do.
Spring – Recycle Our Ash
We keep honing in our the solutions. Reuse the ash in solid, encapsulated products. We even made a film about it!
Summer – A Finalist for the National Creative Placemaking Fund
My life completely shifted gears as I found myself as a finalist for the National Creative Placemaking Fund. This was my first grant-writing experience and an opportunity to create a plan to implement many of the dreams I was having on how to solve this coal ash crisis.
Fall – Looking Back On My Faith
While waiting in uncertainty, I found myself looking back and contemplating how my faith had unfolded in this mystery.
December – We Won!
It is with great excitement that I was finally able to share with the world that we were one of 23 finalists selected to receive funding from the 2017 National Creative Placemaking Fund. Through this grant, The Lilies Project emerged.
Caroline Rutledge Armijo Receives Funding From ArtPlace America’s 2017 National Creative Placemaking Fund