Environmental justice has strong ties to economic and racial justice. Poor people, people of color, and people living in rural areas are disproportionately affected by climate change. In Forsyth County, coal ash from Belews Creek Steam Station is polluting drinking water and affecting the health of local residents.
Belews Creek is a predominantly black community in a predominantly white area, meaning black bodies carry the burden of this ecological destruction. The coal ash from the steam-station has been linked to nervous system issues, reproductive issues, and cancer. Last month, the EPA reversed an Obama-era regulation that would hold companies responsible for disposal of coal ash despite the clear dangers.
All coal plants generate coal ash, the hazardous powdery substance that remains after burning coal. Many plants, including the Belews Creek facility, store it on site, mixed with water in storage ponds. But a lawsuit filed in December by the Southern Environmental Law Center says that because the active storage pond at Belews Creek lacks a protective lining, it is seeping into the groundwater.
The E.P.A. links the substances in coal ash — including heavy metals like arsenic and lead — to nervous-system problems, reproductive issues and cancer. Still, the agency last month overhauled Obama-era regulations on coal ash disposal, granting more authority to states and industry. Separately, the E.P.A. this week loosened rules on air pollution from coal plants and estimated the change would result in up to 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030.
“I think most people assume that when you live in the country that you would have clean air and water,” said Danielle Bailey-Lash, who moved to Belews Creek in 2005 but left in 2015 after she learned she had brain cancer. She does not know whether coal pollution or other factors caused it.
Belews Creek is a prime example of the kinds of communities threatened by coal ash pollution, said Lisa Evans, a lawyer for the environmental group Earthjustice, which is not involved in the suit. “Coal ash ponds are in rural areas, particularly in the Southeast. Those communities have less power and less of a voice,” she said.