Fresh Eyes: What lies beneath

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by Kathy Clark

Water is an old friend. I have always played in it, whether it manifests as a creek, a river, a pond, a lake, an ocean or a puddle. I love the water. At the same time, I hold a fear of what might be hidden by the water. Cottonmouths, sharks, dead bodies, leeches. This duality — the mystery and the awe, the danger and the pleasure — deepens (no pun intended) my love of water.  

During my childhood there were widespread campaigns to promote a clean environment. The “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” slogan emerged as did the famous ad featuring a Native American man crying by the side of a road after a driver has just thrown trash at his feet. These ads instilled in me at a very early age an awareness that we humans, collectively, need to protect the earth. I always imagined that we would.

I remember learning about air pollution in grade school. I remember reading about coal plants and the nasty stuff emitted from their smokestacks. I remember learning about smog and thinking how awful such a thing exists! I wondered how people could live by inhaling brown sky rather than the blue sky I was used to inhaling. But I always believed that collectively, we would clean up the environment. We would wipe away the Native American’s tears.

In February, the third-worst coal-ash spill in American history happened in the town of Eden. The Dan River, source of water, food and recreation for many, became spoiled by the waste from burning coal. Coal is the source of our power. Whenever we turn on our lights, we rely on coal. So in my mind, I am part of the problem.

Like many people, I have been following the news reports indicating the layers of cronyism that led to this preventable tragedy. That’s right: This didn’t have to happen. But it did. Because for whatever reason, we, collectively, do not care about being good stewards of the environment.

I decided I needed to visit a healthy river before taking a trip to the Dan. I went to River Bend Park and wandered around the Catawba for a day. Fish leapt from the water for a tasty insect snack. Turtles strategically positioned themselves on fallen tree limbs for maximum sun exposure. Fishing birds took a break from their sport and stood on rocks in the middle of the river. Immersing myself in the elemental life of this river was just the boost I needed before visiting the Dan. It was as if I needed a placeholder in my mind — something to help me remember what a healthy river should look like.

I went to the Dan River half expecting to see piles of gray matter heaped up on the shores and trapped in eddies, half expecting to see the dead bodies of turtles and otters, birds and fish. I saw none of this. Neither did I see leaping fish, sunning turtles, nor fishing birds.

I walked down the series of stairs leading to the water and knelt down on the last one. I looked into the cloudy water and contemplated reaching in. The familiar fear of what lies beneath the water seized me. I imagined all manner of monsters dwelling just out of my sight, waiting to grab my hand, possibly pulling me into the water entirely. But I wanted to see if I could pull up some coal ash from the bottom.

I rolled up my sleeve and thrust my arm in past my elbow. The cool water was all I felt. Nothing with teeth. No coal ash either. I made another effort, dipping my arm in further, to no avail. I couldn’t reach the river’s bottom.

I shook the water off my arm and walked a little further upriver. I soon noticed a burning sensation on my hand and then a prickly sort of itchiness. It wasn’t too severe. In fact, I wondered if this was a psychosomatic manifestation. Ultimately, it doesn‘t matter. Coal ash is on the bottom of the Dan River, even if I can’t see it. Toxins such as arsenic, thallium, mercury, chromium, lead, boron, selenium, cadmium, antimony and molybdenum are in the Dan River as a result. These toxins have already killed mussels and turtles. Some of these toxins become more potent as they move up the food chain. So over time, more deaths will occur among larger animals.

I am part of the monster that lives beneath the Dan River because of my reliance on coal-based energy. All the life-destroying elements of coal ash released into the environment are the direct result of my inability, and our collective inability, to demand another option.

It’s on all of our hands now.

Kathy Clark lives and writes in Greensboro, where she appreciates a good creek when she can find one.