Image via Grant Baldwin for Courier Image via Grant Baldwin for Courier

This North Carolina community organizer is working to give marginalized communities affected by environmental issues a platform to voice their concerns.

Bobby Jones expected to spend a lot of time fishing when he retired. His plans for leisurely afternoons spent casting line and chumming with boaters on the river, however, quickly changed after a leak from a Duke Energy power plant spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.  

A large portion of North Carolina’s energy comes from coal, which leaves behind toxic waste called coal ash. For decades, this leftover ash—which contains dangerous chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, and selenium—has been stored in unlined ponds and landfills, seeping into groundwater and nearby waterways. Environmental activists have called on utilities to clean up these storage ponds, raising concerns about coal ash pollution and the possibility of further contamination. 

They were right to be worried: In recent years, a number of coal ash spills have occurred across North Carolina, including in Wilmington, Dukeville, and Eden, where the Dan River is located. 

In Goldsboro, where Jones lives, a smaller coal ash spill down the river from his office made him rethink his retirement plans. The 69-year-old said he felt he had to get involved in protecting the local environment after strong storms like Hurricane Florence made coal ash spills more frequent.

“About the same time [as the Goldsboro spill] I was retiring from the state Department of Health and Human Services and working in facilities that were right down the river from that area,” Jones said. “When this spill happened, it felt like I didn’t have a choice, but I had no idea [the fight] was gonna be so much, so grand.”

Locals were already suspicious of the water, Jones said, often advising against drinking or playing in the Neuse River because people frequently got sick. Subsequent testing after the spill in 2018 confirmed high levels of heavy metals in the river. In fact, arsenic levels were 18 times higher than what North Carolina deems safe for drinking water and fish consumption, according to analysis by Pace Analytical.

“There had been questions about illnesses, about the high rate of heavy metal diseases and the high rate of cancer deaths [in the area] but I personally was not able to connect the dots until after the spill happened,” Jones said.  

So, instead of retiring, Jones founded the Down East Coal Ash Environmental and Social Justice Coalition. Their monthly meetings give marginalized individuals affected by environmental issues a platform to voice their concerns.

“Those people who are left out are most frequently Black, Brown and poor white,” he said. “[We represent] North Carolina as a whole and what we found is that a lot of these people have been relegated to unhealthy living situations largely as a result of corporate greed …  and weak regulatory oversight.” 

Jones, who is also on the board of NC Warn, explained that large companies like Duke Energy can convince a local community that a power plant would be beneficial to the area because of the jobs it will bring. However, he noted, by the time people realize the toll the plant is taking on the environment and their own health, they’re unable to speak out about it without fear of losing their jobs. 

“We had a lady start crying [during a community meeting] talking about how appreciative she was of us to give her the opportunity to express her discontent because she had not been able to do so,” he said. “She had been scorned for even raising the notion of saying something negative or critical against Duke Energy because you know some of the community members have a job to do.”

In addition to giving members of the community an opportunity to speak out, Jones said some of his proudest work has involved standing up against policies that favor Duke Energy. 

In January 2020, Duke Energy agreed to clean up nearly 80 million tons of coal ash at six of their facilities. Jones’ organization worked alongside a coalition of other local environmental groups called the Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash (ACT), which he said provided “some energy, synergy, and strength” for their cause. Together, they lobbied their local representatives, wrote letters, and held rallies and press conferences to make known their opposition to Duke Energy and laws that favor the company. 

The coal ash cleanup will be the largest in U.S history, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality. 

Despite their success, Jones said the experience showed him just how much power the energy company has over state government. In fact, he noted, it’s one of the most sobering aspects of his work. 

“We saw how Duke Energy, with their big bucks, has such a great influence over the political decisions that are made in our legislature,” Jones said. 

Last year, the company lobbied heavily for a controversial Senate bill that would allow energy companies to increase customers’ pay rates with limited oversight over a period of three years in order to cover the cost of coal ash cleanup and grid modernization. Opponents of the bill were concerned that Duke Energy would increase rates for customers and ultimately rake in a massive profit. 

Despite a coalition of environmental groups rallying against it, the legislation passed and was signed by the governor in November. Opponents were, however, able to soften the blow by increasing public opposition to previous versions of the bill, stalling its progress, and putting pressure on Sen. Phil Rabon, one of the bill’s lead sponsors, to amend the bill to make it less favorable to Duke Energy. 

“Don’t get me wrong,” Jones said. “They got what they wanted, but they didn’t get everything that they wanted, and that was due to pure hard work.”