Thursday, March 3, 2016

Longtime CL contributor Rhi Fionn hits Charlotte on statewide 'Coal Ash Stories' tour

Posted By on Thu, Mar 3, 2016 at 2:19 PM

Disgrace. Deceit. Disrespect. Anger. Overwhelmed.

These were some of the one-word responses given by members of the crowd following a Wednesday screening of short films that depict how lives have been impacted in communities affected by coal ash contamination.

Coal Ash Chronicles extended trailer from Coal Ash Chronicles on Vimeo.

About 75 people crammed into Hattie’s Tap & Tavern Wednesday night for the Charlotte stop on a statewide “Coal Ash Stories” tour. The tour is a follow-up to a similar tour in 2014, in which longtime Creative Loafing contributor Rhiannon Fionn screened parts of her documentary-in-progress, “Coal Ash Chronicles,” along with “At What Cost?” a short film from Appalachian Voices. This year, Rhiannon has added “Little Blue: A Broken Promise” from Earthjustice and “Coal Ash and North Carolina: A Silent Disaster,” made by Guilford College students.

Following the screening, organizers and attendees discussed the problems facing the Charlotte area due to Duke Energy coal ash ponds lining the Catawba River from Catawba County in the north to Belmont in the southwest.

Debbie Baker, who lives next to the Allen Plant Steam Station in Belmont, attended the screening on Wednesday and addressed the crowd afterward. She explained how tragic experiences have struck her family since moving to Belmont and how those have spurred her into activism against Duke and other corporations that quietly damage communities and the people in them.

Baker has been using strictly bottled water (provided by Duke) since April 2015, but in her eyes it’s too late. Although it hasn’t been proven, Baker is convinced that coal ash contamination played a role in her husband’s death from lung disease at 46 years old, her recent heart attack and her 19-year-old son’s nosebleeds.

Baker’s husband did not smoke, and doctors told him his respiratory bronchial interstitial lung disease was caused by “environmental factors.” Testing of her well water found .9 micrograms-per-liter of hexavalent chromium; which surpasses the maximum health standard set by the Department of Health and Human Services.

“I definitely believe that Duke is making people sick. This is my passion, my heart, and I’m not going to leave,” Baker said. “[Coal ash] is in my guest room, it’s in my den, it’s on my porch. I’m not going away. This is for my husband, for my son and for my neighbors. This is [Duke’s] mess and they need to clean it up.”

For Amy Adams of Appalachian Voices, it’s an all-too familiar story.

“Debbie’s isn’t an isolated story; it’s repeated throughout communities located near coal ash pits,” Adams said.

Duke Energy is currently working to scoop coal ash out of ponds at the now-defunct Riverbend Steam Station on Mountain Island Lake, among other locations, but organizers urged those in attendance on Wednesday to keep the pressure on by attending upcoming public forums regarding the Allen Steam Station and Marshall Steam Station in Catawba County.

“One thing you have to remember is that this is America,” Fionn says. “These are our waters. We need to speak up.”

Fionn has been reporting on coal ash for Creative Loafing since 2009 (here's her latest), and won awards for her 2014 cover story. She has has been working on the Coal Ash Chronicles film for four years and hopes to have it finished by this summer and ready for the next film festival season. She recently signed with literary agent Lisa Hagan to begin the process of pitching a book that she’s been quietly working on for over a year.

“That will allow me to go more in-depth with these stories I’ve been telling,” says Fionn, who apparently doesn’t know what sleep or rest is.

But that’s why they call her the Coal Ash Queen. 

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