STOKES COUNTY, N.C. - Coal ash in our state made national headlines in 2014, when almost 40 thousands tons spilled into the Dan River in Eden.
But for many people in the counties and communities surrounding Belews Lake, and the Duke Energy Power Plant there, concerns with coal ash have been around a lot longer than the spill.
Caroline Armijo, a local artist, born and raised in Stokes County, made it her mission to clean up the coal ash - and using her talents - recycle it in a unique way.
Woven into the fabric of Stokes County: families spanning generations, a history of music and art, and, for several decades - Duke Energy, and the byproduct of the coal-burning process: coal ash.
"I realized that there was a large amount of ash stored in Stokes County at Belews Creek," said Armijo, "Is it getting in our bodies through the air and water? That's the concern related to coal ash."
For years, Duke Energy has been king, employing hundreds to work at it’s Belews Creek Steam Station, providing electricity all across the Triad. Those closest to the site are also fully aware of the coal ash basin, where the remnants of the burning process are stored at the bottom of the pond.
"This is a crisis for us in this community," said Christine Boles, who lives in Walnut Cove.
"Being exposed to it over a long period of time, small toxins are deadly," said community advocate David Hairston.
Some in the Walnut Cove community fear that over time, coal ash has infiltrated the groundwater, causing lingering health problems. But Duke Energy says this isn't true.
"The monitoring wells that encircle our basin show that the water - groundwater from our site has not impacted any municipal water supplies has not impacted any neighbor wells either," said Duke Energy spokesperson Bill Norton.
Norton explains extensive scientific research shows the coal ash has not impacted water quality in the area, nor is it a hazardous waste. However, he says Duke Energy understands there is concern surrounding coal ash, and they are committed to sound environmental practices to ensure the safety of community near power plants, such as Belews Creek.
While it used to be considered the best way to store the ash, Duke Energy is now committed to closing coal ash basins across the state, with a deadline of 2029. Belews Creek basin is no exception. Duke Energy will use a process called "capping in place," removing the water from the basin, and sealing the coal ash there. Other locations will have the coal ash excavated from the site, but Norton says, that's not the best bet for every site.
"The science and engineering say the best option [for Belews Creek] is closing the basin in place," said Norton.
However, Armijo and other environmental advocates believe the best practice is to remove it, and reuse it.
"We need to find ways to reuse it instead of just store it," she said.
Enter researchers from North Carolina A&T State University. They've come up with a way to turn the coal ash into something similar to concrete - encapsulating it, using a polymer to bind it all together into a solid form.
As a mixed media artist, Armijo umped at the opportunity to use it as a material.
Using a mold, she will work with the researchers and create art from the ashes. In her sculptures, she draws inspiration from lilies, a nod to Jester Hairston - a famed composer from Stokes County.
"He also wrote the song 'Amen,' which was used in the movie 'The Lilies Of The Field.' Sidney Portier sang along to that [in the movie]," she said.
Another small model in her studio shows her weaving techniques. Instead of metal, the piece will be woven strips, of coal ash.
"It is both a huge burden, and a huge resource. It's not a natural resource, but it is something that we have," Armijo said.
She'll put the finished, large-scale pieces back in the Walnut Cove community.
While nothing is set in stone - or rather, coal ash -- just yet, Armijo plans to continue using this as a resource, in it's encapsulated form, creating other sculptures to put in various parks across her community.
But first, the goal is to finish The Lilies Project, by summer 2020.
"I put a lot of energy into dealing with this coal ash situation," Armijo said, "And I definitely want to see that my efforts made a difference."
This isn't the first time coal ash has been used as an art material. A sculpture artist out of Brooklyn created a kind of inedible bakery - making "baked goods" out of coal ash to highlight climate change issues.
In the Walnut Cove area, and around Belews Creek, Duke Energy has installed water filtration systems for people living by the plant. But, representatives say, it's for peace of mind, not because the water is hazardous. They say there's no proof that coal ash has gotten beyond their property.
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