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After A Cluster of Rare Cancers, This North Carolina Town Is Looking for Answers: A Q&A with the Author

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Duke Energy's Marshall Steam Station in Sherrills Ford, NC, Feb. 25, 2019. Photo: Kevin J. Beaty

The effects of industry can be seen on the surface of many Appalachia communities, from strip mining in the central coalfields to the new construction of natural gas pipelines, but for decades, people living there have pointed to these and other industries as causing something much deeper, more internal– disease. 

It is not new for researchers to spend years looking at the impact industry is having on the health of a local community in Appalachia, but in some, the connections they find just aren’t clear, and in others, there isn’t enough evidence to even say it exists. 

That’s the case in Huntersville, North Carolina, near Lake Norman, where a small group of people began being diagnosed with some rare cancers several years ago. A number of community members are suspicious that the diseases are linked to pollution from local energy plants, including Duke Energy’s nuclear plant that sits on the lake’s shore, and have demanded environmental testing in the area, but the company, local leaders and outside researchers say that testing would be too difficult– they don’t know where to test or even what they’re testing for. 

Huntersville-native Kevin Beaty, a reporter and photojournalist for Denverite in Denver, Colorado, returned to his hometown to report on the community’s struggle for answers for Southerly. He spoke with 100 Days in Appalachia’s Kristen Uppercue.

KU: You note throughout the story that Huntersville, North Carolina, is your hometown and some of the people who were impacted by cancer in the area were people that you knew growing up. Did you worry at all that your closeness to this story would ever impact your ability to be balanced in your reporting?

KB: It’s definitely something that I kept in mind. But I was actually really excited to do a story about people that I was close with. I mean, Summer Heath is not somebody that I knew, although she went to my high school and her brother played football with my brother, for instance. But we talk a lot about parachute journalism and how it’s something that we want to avoid. We are always sort of striving to make sure that we have the right context to tell stories about communities that we’re not familiar with. And this felt like the polar opposite. And it was really kind of nice [to be] literally going home to talk about it.

KU: Aside from the personal connection, why was this story so important for you to tell to a wider audience?

KB: I left North Carolina in 2013 and at the time, I would not have considered myself a reporter, I was interested in environmental issues, but I’d had no experience in the field. I didn’t go to [journalism] school. I studied film production so I was working on documentaries. But [when I left Huntersville] this issue was sort of beginning to bubble up, that there was sort of these unknown health issues and the community was struggling to have recognition that those were happening. And so I kept a pretty close eye on it. 

I always sort of felt bad that I wasn’t qualified to tackle it journalistically when I lived there. And so when I had the opportunity to produce and publish this piece, it was something that I just felt like I needed to do. So it sort of gets back to that question about being so close to it. This is something that I just didn’t want to fade away. 

KU: Tell me about your research process in a complex story like this. Was it difficult to find the data you needed? Or did you find that a lack thereof was an important part of the story?

KB: A lot of what I reported on in this piece had sort of come to light or had hit the public consciousness throughout the five or more years that this has been an issue for Huntersville. I hadn’t seen them all pulled together into a single sort of narrative to try and bring it together. 

The thyroid cancer issue and the ocular melanoma issue were sort of reported on separately, sort of quick-hit updates. I was really interested in how the communities sort of played off each other and grew. And some of that actually was kind of cut out from the piece. I was personally really interested in sort of the community push to get testing done and how, when the Iredell County group and the Huntersville group sort of realized that each other existed, they bolstered each other’s efforts to do that. 

KU: Lake Norman is manmade and was created by flooding communities, which created a sense of adventure and mystery around it. But that mystery has turned into concern over potentially negative impact to the health of the people living near it. I’m curious if you felt a sense of wonder about the origin story of the lake when you were young. And has that view of the lake changed for you personally into adulthood? 

KB: It’s funny, the lake is one of the only things that I really miss about living in North Carolina. It was a place that I went every weekend. I was constantly jumping fences with my friends to go swimming and fishing so I still have a lot of affection for it. 

I should say that there are no answers to what’s going on here. I found it really interesting that the lake and the town itself [were] really created as a result of these sort of industrial pushes from the ‘20s. And there are a lot of people who don’t know that because it grew so fast. 

There are so many people who have relocated there from other parts of the country and not everyone does their homework and figures out why this lake exists, right? It’s just a place you go boat on the Fourth of July or whatever. 

So, I think there is a sense for a lot of people who live there, including myself, there’s sort of this dual feeling about it, where on one hand, it’s this great feature and on the other hand, people wonder is the industrial activity that’s happening around the lake, having any impact on us? 

Those pieces of infrastructure are things that people drive by all the time. If you go from one town to the next, you will pass by the dam and it’s huge and you can’t miss it. When you’re a kid growing up there, we had nuclear fallout drills, like what do we do if the nuke plant explodes. That’s something that was really present for people who spent some time there. [But] I still want to go jump in the lake at midnight on a hot July night. 

But I mean, people wonder and that’s really the crux of the story. All of these questions are now being raised. I spent a lot of time talking about Duke Energy because they built the lake and because the coal ash issues in North Carolina have sort of made people look in their direction. They’re the biggest player in town.

I’m not saying anyone has any idea why these things are happening. They just asked those questions, and the resistance that people have gotten to getting answers to those questions is potentially more damaging or more interesting than the unsolved mystery at the moment.

KU: As you mentioned, throughout the story, you quote representatives of Duke Energy and even some researchers, as saying it would be incredibly difficult to test the communities around Lake Norman for environmental contamination because they don’t know what they’re testing for or where. At any point, did it seem like that answer was reasonable for the people in the community who are concerned about potential health impacts?

KB: I’d say people are pretty upset that the drumbeat answer that they’re getting is “sorry, we don’t know what to test for and we can’t test for anything.” 

The gentleman, a retired ophthalmologist, who leads the Huntersville ocular melanoma group is basically leading that charge to not test. That committee controls where the money that the state allocates goes and he has said that it would not be scientific for them to just start digging holes and sampling stuff. 

And so people are frustrated. When something like this happens in a town, people start seeing specters and ghosts everywhere. And suddenly, it’s not just, “this is a scientific-method issue,” it becomes “somebody is purposely trying to stop us from knowing the answers.” The way that those rumors sort of spread as a result happens all over the place. An old person in your neighborhood gets lung cancer and suddenly that’s related too, and it’s really hard to sort of balance the demands of the community that are in pain. How do you? How do you find answers? 

It’s unacceptable to some of these people that they don’t know what causes ocular melanoma, and we don’t know what’s in the soil generally, you know, and sorry, but you might have to wait a decade or more for answers. It increases the pain they’re feeling, I’d say.

KU: Concerns of the environmental impacts of industry are common across Appalachian communities that have relied on the energy industry, including coal and natural gas production that we see more commonly today. What can the communities that are attempting to push back against industry learn from what’s happened and is happening in Huntersville?

KB: I quoted a sociologist from Florida in my story and her message was that she studied multiple cases, not just in the south and not just in Appalachia, where communities have tried to get to the bottom of health issues that are related to local industry. Her message was…there’s not usually a happy ending. But she has seen cases where communities have stuck together and were able to find answers. It just seems like it takes a lot of persistence. And it takes using some mechanisms like finding a reporter who wants to talk about the concerns in a community and trying to find state legislators or city council members who will stick to the issue. It’s really easy for these concerns to be downplayed and for the issue to sort of disappear. 

[But] for as persistent as the Huntersville folks have been, they still haven’t gotten environmental testing done and they still don’t have answers. My job is to sort of figure out what they’ve done and try and pull all these disparate pieces together. The Huntersville folks have certainly stayed in regular contact and haven’t given up.