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Advocating for the Environment When Your Rural Town Won't

Environmental advocacy is difficult in the Trump era. In rural areas, it's even harder. “To be personally attacked for speaking up, to be silenced, it was devastating to me," says one resident who tried to fight fracking in her rural Pennsylvania county.

tracey edwards
Tracey Edwards (left) and Dayna Reggero of the Climate Listening Project watch as a truck exits the Belews Creek Power Station in Walnut Cove, North Carolina.
(Courtesy of Adams Wood, Climate Listening Project)
About two miles from Tracey Edwards’ home in Stokes County, N.C., sits an unlined basin filled with millions of tons of wet coal ash.

The coal ash pond, as it’s known, is a waste site for the Belews Creek Power Station, a coal-powered energy facility operated by Duke Energy (the state’s energy provider and one-time employer of former Gov. Pat McCrory). For Edwards and her community, the pond is a symbol of years of institutionalized neglect in Walnut Tree, the majority-black neighborhood that surrounds Belews Creek.

"This is supposed to be the good living out here -- fresh country air, living off the land," Edwards says in a video about her town produced by the Climate Listening Project. "But when you're ingesting poison, not knowing? That's heartbreaking."

Edwards and her neighbors believe the wet coal ash from the pond is seeping into the groundwater and contaminating nearby wells, which supply water for individual homes. Their theories are not unfounded: Tests from six wells near Belews Creek showed elevated levels of arsenic, lead and iron -- though there is no evidence connecting the contamination with the Belews coal ash basin.

What’s more, according to the Associated Press, a large majority of wells tested within 1,000 feet of Duke Energy coal ash ponds in North Carolina showed toxic levels of lead, vanadium and hexavalent chromium. Of 163 wells tested, 152 failed to meet state groundwater standards. Arsenic, vanadium and hexavalent chromium are all cancerous to humans, and lead can cause severe health problems, especially in children.

Duke Energy denies that the well contamination is connected with their coal ash basins. But Edwards has no doubts about the damage the power station has wrought on Walnut Tree, where she has lived all her life.

She remembers a time before the smokestacks at the station were equipped with a filtering system, and black ash used to fall on people’s cars and homes in a fine layer of silt. That was the image that caused Edwards and her mother to believe Duke Energy might be driving the myriad health problems they were seeing in themselves and their neighbors.

In 2012, Edwards suffered a series of three strokes and a heart attack, all at just 44 years old. She says she knows several young mothers living in Walnut Tree with breast cancer and other illnesses. Her own mother died at 64 of a massive heart attack.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Edwards says of the illnesses.

Edwards and other residents in Walnut Tree have mobilized against what they see as a health risk to themselves, their families and their neighbors. They've showed up at commissioner's meetings, where Edwards has become a prominent voice, telling the story of her numerous health issues and her mother's early death.

Partly because of the outcry, Duke Energy is now providing bottled water to the houses with contaminated wells near Belews and in other areas of North Carolina near coal ash ponds, according to Edwards. 

Edwards and other Walnut Tree residents have also joined forces with grassroots organizations like No Fracking in Stokes to protest hydraulic fracturing (fracking) tests from being performed in the county, which they fear could cause further groundwater contamination.

When city commissioners allowed a fracking test to occur anyway, residents voted them out. 


A short film by the Climate Listening Project about Tracey Edwards and her neighbors.
Edwards’ story is typical of many residents-turned-activists all over the U.S. who have taken on corporations and local politicians to stop contamination and pollution in their neighborhoods. What’s less-often discussed are the unique challenges facing climate activists in many small towns and rural areas like Stokes County, where they're often viewed with profound suspicion from residents and public officials alike.


Rural Vulnerability to Climate Change

Rural, mostly conservative areas don’t have a reputation for environmental advocacy -- and yet, they are particularly vulnerable to certain kinds of pollution, contamination and the extreme weather events associated with climate change.

According to The New York Times, Southern states, many of them largely rural, will bear the economic brunt of extreme weather as the climate changes and agricultural production suffers. Peter Thorne, a professor at the University of Iowa Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, worries about the infrastructure challenges rural areas will face as they deal with increased rainfall and flooding.

“The ditches and small creeks [in these areas] were not set up to accommodate those levels of water flow,” he says. “Roads can flood; evacuations will be made more difficult; emergency responders might not be able to get through to people.” Urban areas, he says, more often have the capacity to deal with increased stream and river flow.

Potentially harmful environmental practices, such as fracking, are also more common in rural areas. Research shows fracking is associated with water contamination, earthquakes, low birthweights and acute pollution -- all of which deeply worried Amy Nassif, a physical therapist living in a rural Pennsylvania county.

In 2014, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) allowed Rex Energy, a large natural gas company, to install a six-well fracking site about a half-mile from a cluster of elementary, middle and high schools, where Nassif's kids attend.

“They were putting this [site] right in an evacuation zone for all the schools,” she says. “They wanted to do subsurface drilling underneath school property.”

Nassif and other parents were concerned. Earlier that same year, a natural gas well in southwest Pennsylvania had exploded. They compiled research about the potentially harmful effects of fracking on human health and took it to their school board, to local officials, to state representatives. They linked up with environmental organizations, which sued to try and rescind the township’s decision to allow fracking on the site.

None of it worked.

Rex Energy kept its permission to drill from DEP, and Nassif ended up being sued by leaseholders tied to the site, who claimed her interference had resulted in a delay of profits for them.


A short film by the Climate Listening Project about Amy Nassif and her neighbors.
The case was thrown out, but the experience took a profound emotional toll on Nassif. She says she felt condemned and silenced by her neighbors and representatives -- many of whom she thinks have financial or familial ties to the fracking industry.

“Personally, this was one of the most defining moments in my life,” she says. “To be personally attacked for speaking up, to be silenced, it was devastating to me and to my family.”


Political Division and Government Inaction

Many of the parents in her advocacy group, Nassif says, are politically conservative -- several of them even work for the natural gas industry. For that reason, the group decided early on to focus on the location of the wells near the schools, not on their existence.

Despite the diversity of her parent coalition, she still felt like the larger community was hostile to her ideas and her activism. The whole thing has made her hyperaware of political divides around climate change.

“I always cared about the environment, but I was never an activist, I never talked about climate change before this,” she says. “Having gone through this experience and being inundated with the science behind it, and having people in power to change things just ignore it … it has been inexplicably frustrating to me.”

Nassif believes her neighbors and people throughout Pennsylvania have become even more resistant to climate activism with the decline of coal jobs and the rise of President Trump.

"With Pennsylvania having so many heavily rural and mountainous areas, we are deeply rooted in fossil fuels," she says. "And just as we were starting to introduce the idea of renewables, we had the last election ... and people switched back. They're going so far as to say [coal] isn't doing anything bad for the climate."

Johnathan Hladik at the Center for Rural Affairs agrees that it can be difficult for environmental activists to get a toehold in rural areas. In many ways, they have to try to drive the conversation away from political controversy, he says.

“If you are seen as an outside environmental group [in a rural area], good luck,” Hladik says. “[They’ll assume] you’re an outside group funded by outside money, that you’re part of some radical agenda.”

Hladik  believes that the political climate around environmental issues has become so partisan that even the slightest whiff of advocacy earns you deep suspicion among many farmers and other rural Americans. This is especially true when trusted organizations, like the Farm Bureau, come out against or in favor of certain political actions. Environmental organizations simply can’t compete with that messaging, Hladik says.

Among Republican politicians, who are more likely to represent rural areas than Democrats are, many increasingly say they view climate change as either false or not attributable to human activity.

Still, Hladik  says, advocacy organizations can achieve measured success in rural areas. They just have to adjust their targets and frame things in ways that resonate with the cultural and political life in rural places.

Arguing in favor of wind energy, for example, becomes about energy independence and self-sufficiency. At all costs, one must avoid branding oneself a “radical wind activist,” he says. Only then will state officials and their constituents offer you their ear.

But Hladik is adamant that, despite what many urban-dwellers and Democrats might believe, politically conservative rural residents are profoundly concerned with the environment. Caring for the land is more than just an economic imperative -- it’s a deeply-embedded family value.

There are many farmers for whom stewardship of their land and environmental conservation are hugely important, passed down from one generation to the next, Hladik says.

“But the thing is, they don’t want to be seen as outsiders," he adds. "They don’t want to be branded liberal radicals.”

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this misspelled Johnathan Hladik's last name. 

Natalie previously covered immigrant communities and environmental justice as a bilingual reporter at CityLab and CityLab Latino. She hails from the Los Angeles area and graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in English literature.
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