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Agents of change 

People called them crazy. An environmental disaster changed that.

James Tyson often wears worn-out jeans, T-shirts and lets his long blonde hair hang loose down his back. As a member of Charlotte Environmental Action, he is regularly disregarded as an "unkempt activist." But recent events prove Tyson and others like him have been the smartest people in the room for years.

In February, a pipe built and operated by Duke Power, now Duke Energy, ruptured and poured nearly 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, in Eden, North Carolina. Overnight, the collection of coal ash ponds Duke has spread across the state went from mostly ignored pools of muck to the biggest story of the year. Newspapers and their readers were calling for the heads of Duke Energy executives, Gov. McCrory and his administration.

Environmentalists were reluctantly mouthing, "Told ya so."

Charlotte Environmental Action has existed in different forms since September 2011, when Tyson joined Rainforest Action Network's Todd Zimmer to fight Bank of America's business relationship with coal-burning companies, such as Duke. At that time, the group was focused more on the removal of mountaintops for coal, not the product left behind from burning it.

But as the group evolved over months and years, coal ash became a bigger part of its message. It joined other groups that had been protesting the ominous placement of coal ash ponds near drinking sources for many years. Still, they were ignored, viewed as a bunch of unshaven hippies who needed showers and real jobs.

"That's bullshit." Tyson, 28, is at home on a farm that sits next to the land he grew up on. He lives with other 20-somethings who filter in and out of the home, not batting an eye at his winding speeches against big business, globalization and activism delivered to the stranger at the kitchen table.

"People would assume that just because of the way someone looks that they're not dressed for business, like that somehow means that their voice is disqualified," said Tyson, who focused on environmental chemistry and science as an undergrad at Warren Wilson College, near Asheville. "When really it's business itself that has now gotten us into this serious trouble."

The Dan River spill appeared at first to be a turning point for executives and shareholders. In an open letter to Duke Energy, signed by representatives of the California Public Employees' Retirement System and the New York City Pension Funds, each holding hundreds of millions of dollars in Duke Energy stock, investors urged fellow shareholders to boot out four Duke board members who are in charge of the company's environmental, safety and health compliance.

But when all eligible board members were re-elected at the company's shareholders meeting on May 1, activists began to wonder if their warnings were again falling on deaf ears. Duke CEO Lynn Good's responses to the 16 concerned shareholders, environmentalists and others who spoke up seemed pre-packaged to many on hand. A feeling of deja vu settled over the group as they left the meeting. Jim Rogers, Lynn's predecessor, had given them an equally cold shoulder in previous meetings.

Beth Henry, a volunteer with NC WARN, Greenpeace and other activist groups, was so frustrated following the meeting that she refused to talk to reporters. She didn't want to come off as defeated or negative.

The retired Henry, 59, took up activism eight years ago after realizing how dramatically climate change would affect her children and grandchildren. Coal ash was one of her first concerns, and she began researching the effects of ash basins at Duke Energy's James E. Rogers Energy Complex (formerly the Cliffside Steam Station) in Rutherford County. She spoke with nationally renowned engineers and representatives of the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, who told her that they knew coal waste was leaking into groundwater but a cleanup would cost far too much.

Henry describes herself as naïve in those first years of activism. Now, she says she's no longer optimistic about the changes that need to be made to reverse climate change.

"When I got into this I thought, everyone loves their children and grandchildren, so if we can get rich people and corporations to listen to the scientists they will say, 'We have to stop these harmful practices,'" she said.

Yet she remains befuddled by the way people in positions of power ignore anything beyond their bottom line. It angered Henry at Duke's shareholder's meeting to hear CEO Lynn Good say that the coal ash spills were "unforeseeable problems."

"My reaction was that, yes, we did see this coming, and we've been warning your company about it for years. Now there are more problems on the way, and when disaster strikes you will say that you couldn't see them coming either," she said.

Greenpeace's Monica Embrey, one of three employees at the organization's Charlotte offices, in Area 15 near NoDa, said she was equally frustrated that an environmental disaster had to unfold before most anyone took notice of work she's been doing for years. She tries, however, to find the silver lining on the event that has left its own lining of a similar color on parts of the Dan River.

The spill has raised awareness of the danger posed by coal ash ponds sitting so close to drinking supplies across the state. Embrey said she hopes this awareness will help her keep Duke accountable as she spends her summer making sure that they clean up all 32 of North Carolina's coal ash ponds and don't pass the cost along to ratepayers.

She'll also advocate for shifting away from reacting to problems to finding preemptive solutions. The only way to truly clean coal ash is to not produce it, she says, and a new movement called Solarize Charlotte has a lot of people in the activist community excited.

Solarize Charlotte aims to help residents take advantage of clean energy by installing solar panels on their homes at prices far below retail. The coalition is made up of community activist groups, nonprofits and religious groups.

The group will also fight Duke's efforts to pay residents less money for the extra power their solar panels generate.

"It's important to make the solutions to climate change more beneficial," Henry said. "Duke is trying to make people want to use these solutions less, and a very important part of this summer will be to make people want to use them more."

Randy Wheeless, spokesman for Duke Energy, said that the company would like to see the price they are paying solar customers for energy go down. "With what the regulations are now, we are paying retail price for something we could be paying wholesale for elsewhere."

Rumors recently arose that Duke and the American Legislative Exchange Council were lobbying to charge an extra fee to customers who take advantage of solar energy, whom John Eick, director of ALEC's Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force, publicly called "free riders."

Wheeless said that although some company representatives have spoken in support of the extra fee, plans do not exist to incur one. He admits the regulations as they stand now could "use some improvement."

Tyson is in the process of building his own large solar panel in the front yard of his farm. "There will be a proactive movement against coal ash, and that's good but it's the least thing we should be doing," he said. "Movement on these things will only come out of disaster and not from good will. And that really disturbs me in the way that I go about organizing. I'm not really enthusiastic about coal ash [removal] because we don't want coal burning in the first place."

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