10 Artists Moving Us to Take a Stand Against Coal Ash Pollution

Photographers, sculptors, muralists, filmmakers, musicians, and poets are using their art to expose the threat of coal ash and advocate for clean air and drinking water.

Artworks like these call attention to the health hazards of toxic coal ash.
Artworks like these call attention to the health hazards of toxic coal ash. (Clockwise from top left: Caroline Armijo; Kaitlyn Stancy; Ashley Williams; J Henry Fair)

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Coal ash — the toxic waste left behind when power companies burn coal to produce electricity — can be a hidden source of pollution, leaching contaminants into communities’ groundwater. But around the country, artists are working to make the harms of coal ash more visible.

U.S. coal-fired power plants generate over 100 million tons of coal ash waste each year, making it the nation’s second-largest industrial waste stream. Often, coal ash is stored in unlined pits or “ponds,” which may contain tens of millions of tons of dangerous waste.

These pits leak toxic metals, like arsenic, chromium, cobalt, lithium, manganese, selenium, radium (and many more), into underlying groundwater and nearby surface waters. Heavy metals in coal ash have been linked to cancer, heart disease, reproductive failure, and stroke. Coal ash pits and ponds can also fail catastrophically and dump millions of tons of toxic waste into rivers and lakes. Coal ash puts nearby communities and their waterways at great risk.

It is vital for communities living near coal plants and coal ash dump sites to have their voices heard and receive protection from the harms of coal ash. One creative way to call attention to this problem is through artistic activism. Photographers, sculptors, muralists, filmmakers, musicians, and poets have used their art to expose the threat of coal ash and advocate for clean air and drinking water. Earthjustice stands in solidarity with these artists as we use the power of the law to work toward the same goal.

The Biden administration has pledged to alleviate environmental injustice and protect communities disproportionately burdened by industrial pollution. Please join us in calling on it to take action, and add your voice to artists, activists, and frontline communities throughout the nation living near one of over 1,000 coal ash dump sites.

Greg Lindquist: Artist and Writer

Originally from Wilmington, North Carolina, Greg Lindquist is a New York-based artist and writer whose work converges at the intersection of social justice, ecology, and environmental justice. His recent paintings and participatory installations focus on applying the beauty of landscape and abstraction to raise awareness of environmental concerns. Greg describes his interest in coal ash:

“Many ecological disasters are problematically not able to be clearly seen. However, in 2014, when 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled through eighty miles of the Dan River in North Carolina and Virginia, I was captivated by an image of the ash swirling on the river’s surface. In particular, I was struck by the plain contradiction of how something so ruinous to both nature and humans could appear so beautiful and pleasing to the eye.

“This spill was the conceptual, visual, educational, and political driver of the Smoke and Water project (2014 – 2018), a series of installations, paintings, and murals that were made collaboratively with numerous communities of families, non-profits, colleges, and museums. The participation of these diverse painting hands made this pollution both visible and deeply felt, bringing the story of coal ash’s ecological and human hazards to a larger audience.

“At the same time, I began examining the larger life cycle of coal electricity — the material sources and means of production, as well as how the electric plants are geographically situated within rural residential communities, which primarily burdens people of color and of economic disadvantage. From photographic documentation of the six largest coal-fired electric plants in the United States in Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia, I made a series of easel-sized oil-on-linen paintings, incorporating the ash by-product as a material painted on the canvases as grounds, skies, and frames.

“While an artwork itself certainly cannot change the world, art practices and projects can and do work with larger social movements and struggles to glacially achieve change on a far greater scale than is capable with the efforts of any one artist acting alone as an individual. Ultimately, I am interested in the role the visuality of art as its own experience can take, as much as art’s potential for social change.”

Visit Greg’s website to view more of his work, or find him on Instagram @greglindquist.

Mabette Colón Pérez: Children’s Book Writer, Illustrator and Activist

Mabette Colón Pérez is a student artist-activist who grew up near the AES-PR coal plant and a massive coal ash pile in Guayama, Puerto Rico. Mabette testified at an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hearing about how coal ash exposure has harmed her community, raising awareness about the harms of coal ash.

Environmental Justice Is for You and Me is a Spanish-English-language bilingual children’s book that introduces young readers to the concept of justicia ambiental (environmental justice). Written by Catalina M. de Onís, Hilda Lloréns, Mabette Colón Pérez (also illustrator), and Khalil G. García-Lloréns (first translator into Spanish), the book defines key concepts of environmental justice for a child and youth audience, and its main goal is to raise awareness about the threats that exist against the environment. The book offers an essential educational tool to develop our sensitivity for the benefit of all forms of life, with special attention to the intersections between racism, poverty, and the environment in Jobos Bay, in southern Puerto Rico.

In addition to Puerto Rican publisher Editora Educación Emergente offering a free download of the book, the authors are working with the publisher to produce physical copies of the book for purchase online. All royalties will be donated to the Comité Diálogo Ambiental (Environmental Dialogue Committee), a grassroots group affiliated with Iniciativa de Ecodesarrollo de Bahia de Jobos (Bahia de Jobos Ecodevelopment Initiative) that coordinates an annual environmental justice camp for youth in southeastern Puerto Rico. With this publication, Editora Educación Emergente revalidates its commitment to “an emerging education that guarantees life in justice for all. Another school is possible.”

Find Mabette’s book on Editora Educación Emergent’s website.

Eve Morgenstern: Filmmaker and Activist

Eve Morgenstern is a photographer and filmmaker based in the Hudson Valley. She has produced several documentary films for PBS and theatrical release. Below, Eve describes an award-winning film she created in 2019, which was inspired by a small town in Ohio destroyed by the pollution from a coal-fired power plant:

Cheshire, Ohio tells the story of a community that suffered years of consequences from the burning of coal at the power plant that for many years sat dangerously close to this centuries-old town. After years of concerning pollution problems, the company that owns the plant bought out most of the residents of the town and bulldozed their homes. Yet the plant still exists and continues to pump CO2, one of the leading causes of climate change, into the atmosphere. The coal ash landfill forms a mountain in Cheshire posing a risk to drinking water, aquatic life, and human health. Workers at the plant filed a lawsuit because of a cancer cluster that showed up amongst those who worked in the ash pile.

“My film covers the three chapters of this coal story: the buyout of the town, the fight of nearby residents who were left out of the deal, and the lawsuit filed by the sick workers. Making this film truly inspired me to become an environmental activist. I serve as an officer of the Hudson Valley & Catskills chapter of The Climate Reality Project, and I am co-founder of our chapter’s Arts Committee. I truly believe art has the power to inspire action and I have the brave people of Cheshire to thank for sharing their stories and teaching me about the destructive history of coal as an energy source.”

Visit Eve’s website to view more of her work.

Chris Jordan-Bloch: Earthjustice Filmmaker, Producer and Photographer

Since 2010, Chris Jordan-Bloch has filmed and produced stunning images for Earthjustice that tell the stories behind Earthjustice’s legal and legislative advocacy. Chris believes in the importance and power of visual storytelling, and it is his goal to tell the stories and show the personalities behind the cases and advocacy work of the organization.

Chris describes his work as follows:

“I am a producer, filmmaker, and photographer living in Oakland, California, and I believe that stories, activism, and the law can work together to create meaningful change. Currently, I am the managing producer for Earthjustice where I lead photo and video for the organization.

“Even though coal ash is one of America’s largest toxic waste streams, I didn’t know much about it until I met William Anderson and Lisa Evans in Washington, D.C. William was the chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes, Lisa was a lawyer for Earthjustice, and both were fighting to clean up coal ash. By the end of our meeting, William had invited me to come out to Moapa, N.V., to experience coal ash firsthand. A few weeks later I was in William’s office, interviewing people and learning about what it was like to live in the shadow of a polluting monster. The Paiute people let me into their lives and shared their stories with me. I was profoundly upset by the injustice they were facing. A massive coal plant was blowing coal ash, laced with arsenic, mercury, and lead, directly into their homes — and lives. At the same time, I was profoundly heartened by the bravery and savvy that the residents showed as they battled against the pollution. The Moapa Band of Paiutes lobbied for local change in the media, the courts and the legislature, and as a direct result of their work, the coal plant was shuttered. As if that wasn’t enough, the Paiutes then went to the federal courts and the halls of Congress to advocate for national change. As a result, one of America’s largest toxic waste stream is now subject to its first-ever national regulation.

“It was a true privilege to be their partner and play a small part with my film. After Moapa, I made more films about coal ash and met more advocates. These people shared the common enemy of toxic coal pollution, but more importantly, they all shared the same tenacity, savvy, and deep passion for justice that I had encountered in Moapa. The environmental advocate is a powerful person, and I have been deeply privileged to know a few who are fighting for justice against coal ash pollution.

View more of Chris’s films and photos related to coal ash.

Ashley Williams: Activist and Community Organizer

Ashley Williams is a resident of Michigan City and is co-founder and executive director of Just Transition Northwest Indiana (NWI). Just Transition NWI seeks to educate and organize NWI communities and workers, give voice to their stories, and support a just transition to a regenerative economy that protects the environment, climate and future generations. Ashley describes the inspiring mural she helped create:

“Our Ecopolis signifies a new vision for Northwest Indiana. The mural is based on the concept of the Ecopolis, also known as a regenerative city. Our Ecopolis tells the story of the people of Michigan City, Wheatfield, Gary, and the larger Northwest Indiana region rising up to reclaim their power from corporate polluters. In the mural, each fossil fuel site is transformed from places of extraction to places of resilience, regeneration, and environmental justice.

In the summer of 2018, the mural was created with acrylic paint on canvas through a series of art builds with youth and students at First Presbyterian Church of Michigan City, Progressive Community Church in Gary, Kankakee Valley High School in Wheatfield, and Steel City Academy in Gary. The series was coupled with community conversations as well as a live play hosted by a coalition of community partners entitled Ecopolis Southshore, written and directed by author Jeff Biggers. We debuted the mural at Steel City Academy, a school that has been fighting back against the siting of a waste recycling facility directly across the street from them, to give further voice to their story. In September 2018, the mural was then presented during our utility’s, NIPSCO’s, future energy planning process meeting. That same day, the utility announced plans to retire all of their remaining coal plants by 2028 and to invest in renewable energy.”

Learn more about Just Transition NWI’s work. Ashley can be reached at ashley@jtnwi.org.

Kaitlyn Stancy: Artist, Satirist, and Advocate

Born and raised in Northwest Indiana, Kaitlyn Stancy is an artist and designer who created a fictional, satirical solutions company called Sitting Duck with a campaign aimed to inform people about the coal ash threats in Town of Pines, Indiana, where coal ash contaminated the drinking water and turned the small town into a Superfund site. Combining sarcastic propaganda and impractical solutions with ironic realtor marketing strategies and trompe l’oeil installations, Stancy’s body of work encourages people to question big corporation’s use of media and to take action against health-threatening issues.

Of her work, Kaitlyn writes:

“The Town of Pines, Indiana, has been struggling with coal ash waste management issues caused by NIPSCO since the early 1980s. Higher than normal levels of arsenic, boron, molybdenum, manganese, and lead have all been found in the drinking water near NIPSCO’s coal ash dumping site, the Yard 520 Landfill owned by Brown Inc. Publicly known health and environmental issues such as the situation in Pines are improperly resolved and disregarded in the media every day. While we are not all experts on finding the proper solutions to these problems, the first step to addressing them is to inform people that they exist.”

View Kaitlyn’s project about Town of Pines, Indiana. Find her on Instagram @kaitlynstancy.

Will Warasila: Photographer

Will Warasila is an artist from North Carolina who completed the MFA|EDA program at Duke University. He has worked on an in-depth project in Walnut Cove, North Carolina, called Quicker than Coal Ash, the first in a series of a larger group of projects addressing toxicity, sustainability, and the Anthropocene. Will describes his work:

“The people of Walnut Cove, North Carolina, live in the shadow of Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station, where toxic coal ash is kept in a massive unlined storage pond, and toxins are pumped into the air, water, and soil. I spent a year and a half getting to know the residents, the landscape, the structures of energy and power. During my first recorded interview with Pastor Leslie Brewer, I asked her, What is coal ash? At first she replied that coal ash was simply a nuisance. Coal ash is what you got all over the cars and the roofs and anything you left outside… Then it changed from a nuisance into a poison. Growing up, she and her family had Belews Creek flowing by, and we’d swim in it. After the Steam Station was built, it became a sort of wasteland. Most of this transformation, the harm being done to the land and its residents, is invisible and impossible to photograph. Nevertheless, I have attempted to make images that address this shift.”

Visit Will’s website to view more of his work. Find him on Instagram @willwarasila.

J Henry Fair: Photographer and Environmental Activist

J Henry Fair is a photographer, environmental activist, and co-founder of the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York. Known for his “chillingly beautiful” (Audubon Magazine) environmental aerial photos, Fair has called attention to environmental and political problems in different regions of the world. Henry has taken aerial photos of countless coal ash ponds worldwide and created stunningly dramatic and haunting images. Speaking about his Industrial Scars series, Roberta Smith, chief art critic of The New York Times said, “The vivid color photographs of J Henry Fair lead an uneasy double life as potent records of environmental pollution and as ersatz evocations of abstract painting… information and form work together, to devastating effect.”

Henry is also an activist for coal ash protections and has testified at EPA hearings as well as exhibited his work at the U.S. Capitol at an event educating lawmakers about the damage occurring from unregulated coal ash dumping. He is currently based in New York City and Berlin. About his work, Henry writes:

“I make abstract-expressionist photographs based on nature and anti-nature. My work is about the conflict between our dependence on nature for life, and the damage we do to it with our desire for materialism. Art can bridge ideological divides where dialogue has failed. Beauty touches us and bypasses our preconceptions. Ironic beauty prompts us to question meaning and previously held beliefs.”

Visit Henry’s website to view more of his work. Find him on Instagram @jhenryfair.

Caroline Armijo: Environmentalist and Mixed-Media Artist

Caroline Rutledge Armijo is a mixed-media artist, environmental advocate, and mother, who lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her work incorporates her concern for environmental issues threatening her home community — coal ash and fracking. She advocates for Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup based at Belews Creek, North Carolina, and Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) against Coal Ash. Caroline describes her work:

“As a mixed-media artist, I spent years contemplating how we heal our community from the impacts of coal ash. What does that look like holistically? In 2018, The Lilies Project provided the opportunity to create art out of coal ash and the literal transformation of a burden into something beautiful. The experience became more than just making a piece of public art, but expanded into the art of building community, the power of advocacy, celebrating history, revering special places and believing in miracles. The work continues its final leg starting with 33 hexagonal-shaped posts of encapsulated coal ash configured into public art and installed in a walking tour in Walnut Cove, North Carolina. From here, I ponder how does the last decade of coal ash advocacy and creative placemaking tie into our current environmental crisis on a global scale? How can these concepts be applied immediately to make dramatic impacts in the face of climate change and seek sweeping changes that are equitable, beautiful, and joyful? How can art bring ideas into reality?”

About the work above, Caroline says:

“A decagon constructed from a coal ash encapsulated hexagonal-shaped post was dedicated on Juneteenth 2021 at the Centennial Celebration of the Walnut Cove Colored School. The community center was the first restored Rosenwald School in the U.S. and served as a model for additional community restoration projects.

The exterior green ring of the circle references the logo for the Climate Reality Project. Many climate-related actions occurred at the Walnut Cove Colored School during Walnut Cove Town Council meetings. Local citizens advocated against fracking and for coal ash cleanup. Bailey-Lash won a seat on the Town Council on an environmental platform in 2019 general election. She passed away from a brain tumor on November 30th, 2019.

The interior colors were inspired by the watercolor painting on the cover of Community School Plans, Bulletin No. 3, the Julius Rosenwald Fund. The colors reflect the grand vision of Booker T. Washington and his collaboration with Julius Rosenwald to transform the history of our country by building over 5,000 community schools for African-Americans. We need to collaborate on similar wide-sweeping visionary projects to address coal ash and the climate emergency issues we are facing.

The Lilies Project produced a short documentary about the centennial history of the Walnut Cove Colored School. Visit Caroline’s website to view more of her work.

Wally McRae: Cowboy Poet

Third generation-rancher Wally McRae, whose 30,000-acre Rocker Six Cattle ranch sits south of Rosebud, Montana, is also internationally known for his poetry and environmental stewardship. Wally was the first cowboy poet to win the National Heritage Award (1990) from the National Endowment for the Arts and was a recipient of the Montana Governor’s Award for the Arts (1989). In 1996, President Clinton appointed McRae to the National Council of the Arts. His collection, Stick Horses, was named the Montana Book of the Year in 2009.

Since the 1960s, Wally has organized and spoken out against coal mining and coal plants in eastern Montana, and in the 1970s, he helped found the Northern Plains Resource Council to protect water quality and reclaim western lands harmed by industry. His efforts to preserve the land were highlighted in the book Charles Kuralt’s America, and his poetry and activism were featured in 60 Minutes and on the PBS series P.O.V. In 2014, Wally traveled to Washington, D.C., to brief members of Congress and the Obama administration on the harm caused by coal ash in Montana.

Wally’s poem Things of Intrinsic Worth addresses the harm from coal mining and coal burning in Colstrip, Montana, where unlined pits of millions of tons of coal ash contaminate groundwater the water on McRae’s ranch. McRae could have long ago sold his ranch to developers and retired, but he stayed and still fights.

“I think it’s important,” Wally says, “for somebody sometime to say: ‘Don’t take this personal, fella. But this item, this body, this article, this ranch, is not for sale.’ If I can’t provide any other service to people, maybe I can show that there are still a few people that cannot be bought.”

About Things of Intrinsic Worth, Wally’s son Clint states, “Dad has spent a lifetime advocating for the protection of agricultural interests from the natural resource industry. Every place and event mentioned in this poem is real.”

Earthjustice thanks all of the artists who have recognized coal ash as a critical issue, participated in this project, and permitted us to share their work.

Kayla Marr was an intern working on coal issues with Earthjustice's Clean Energy Program in summer 2021.

Earthjustice’s Clean Energy Program uses the power of the law and the strength of partnership to accelerate the transition to 100% clean energy.