Remembering a community pillar and fierce coal ash partner
David Hairston was truly a pillar of his community. Born in Stokes County, North Carolina, Hairston spent his life working to make his rural home of Walnut Cove a better place.
A dedicated community leader, Hairston actively participated in various local initiatives, including serving as a member of the local NAACP chapter and advocate for the town’s public library. His role as a youth mentor, board member of Hanging Rock State Park, and partner to arts nonprofit, the Lilies Project, exemplified his commitment to nurturing the growth and well-being of the community he held dear.
Meaningful change always comes from within a community and is impossible without local leaders like David Hairston.Chandra Taylor-Sawyer, Environmental Justice Initiative Leader
So, when the fight against toxic coal ash came to town, Hairston stepped up to protect his community.
On February 2, 2014, Duke Energy’s coal ash lagoons in Eden, N.C. failed, spilling more than 20 million gallons of coal ash-contaminated water and 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. The catastrophe happened less than 30 miles northeast of Walnut Cove and was a wakeup call for the nation and local communities, drawing attention to the hazards of storing toxic coal ash in leaking, unlined pits near waterways.
Stokes County is also home to Duke’s Belews Creek Steam Station, a coal fired power plant right down the road from Walnut Cove that has been operating since 1974. While working on Duke’s Dan River coal ash disaster, Hairston also began devoting time to raising awareness around the coal fired plant’s leaking unlined coal ash pits and how they could be linked to high rates of cancer in his hometown.
Hairston led the charge in Walnut Cove to get Duke Energy to clean up its toxic coal ash mess at Belews Creek. He spoke out in local meetings, to the press, and was a key witness that helped achieve SELC’s 2019 settlement with Duke Energy and N.C. Department of Environmental Quality that resulted in the largest coal ash cleanup in America.
Sadly, on July 24, 2023, Hairston passed away. The same week Duke Energy began to excavate coal ash from Belews Creek and move it to lined pits.
His goal was to empower, to let people know that if we put our minds to something we could defeat great odds.Caroline Armijo, coal ash activist
Last November we honored David’s life and work at SELC’s fall board meeting. Over 15 of Hairston’s relatives attended to accept the James S. Dockery Jr. Environmental Leadership Award on his behalf. One after another, SELC staff and family members took to the podium to speak about David’s deep kindness and unrelenting dedication to his community.
“Meaningful change always comes from within a community and is impossible without local leaders like David Hairston,” said Chandra Taylor-Sawyer, Leader of SELC’s Environmental Justice Initiative.
Hairston’s longtime friend, Stokes County native, and coal ash activist, Caroline Armijo reflects, “David’s natural spirit was to be an organizer, even since he was a child. He really just wanted to elevate and make his community better, especially with the kids. He loved his childhood and wanted to ensure the next generation had a good life. His goal was to empower, to let people know that if we put our minds to something we could defeat great odds.”
The long history of environmental justice advocates from Black communities both urban and rural is deeply tied to the South. The environmental justice movement was sparked in the late 70s in Warren County, North Carolina when local organizers protested a toxic landfill.
The South continues to cultivate the next generation of community leaders dedicated to environmental justice. Individuals like Yolonda Spinks and Keshaun Pearson of Memphis Community Against Pollution, Dr. Treva Gear of the Dogwood Alliance in South Georgia, and Carletta Davis of Eight Mile Community Association in Prichard, Alabama, and so many more of our local partners across the region embody Hairston’s spirit and ensure that his legacy carries on.