Our Heroes: Patrick Grenter and Veronica Coptis of the Center for Coalfield Justice

“Some people have said that this tour was life-changing,” said Patrick Grenter, Executive Director of Center for Coalfield Justice (CCJ), a grassroots nonprofit based in Washington, Pennsylvania that helps local communities contend with the effects of coal mining and natural gas extraction.

Patrick had to speak up since our 20-person group was surrounded in the hotel lobby by a hundred-or-so other cheerful (and raucous) River Rally attendees waiting to go on other field trips. This year the annual River Rally was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Our group were participants in the “Fracking in the Coalfield” tour to witness the massive scale of fossil fuel extraction occurring in Pennsylvania’s coal country.

Alongside Patrick was Veronica Coptis, CCJ community organizer and Greene County native, and the pair led us, box lunches in hand, onboard the tour bus, which drove us about 45 minutes outside Pittsburgh. Situated in the most southwesterly corner of the state, Greene County is a place of beauty with rugged hills and deep valleys. Here, as in other parts of the Appalachia, history with the coal industry is long and checkered even as it continues to dominate the local economy. With few other industries, the county’s heavy reliance on coal production has restricted the economy in what is one of the poorest in the state. That reliance has generated a long list of environmental, health and social justice concerns and grievances.

It was easy to forget those problems while we rolled through the lush hillsides on that sunny day, but Patrick and Veronica referred (and pointed) to the destruction caused by the fossil fuel industry. For most of the tour we drove over the Bailey Mine Complex, North America’s largest active underground coal mine, which at 33 square miles is approximately the size of Manhattan. Owned by coal colossus CONSOL Energy (whose name emblazons the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey arena), the company achieves high coal productivity because of the extreme Longwall Mining technique that extracts all coal in the seam and completely removes any support, or “pillars.” The absence of support causes subsidence – or sinking ground – that damages peoples’ homes and property and even ruined drinking water wells. In one case, subsidence triggered by the Bailey Mine cracked the Ryerson State Park dam and forced the state to drain the county’s primary recreational lake.

Sitting atop the mine are the thousands of fracked natural gas wells that popped up during the Marcellus Shale-gas boom. Fracking has dumped more environmental and health problems, industrial infrastructure and truck traffic onto the community. Plus, most natural gas jobs don’t go to locals but to itinerant roughnecks on to the next site. Keep in mind that no other place in the world is experiencing at such an immense scale the dual threat of fracked natural gas wells overtop an active underground mine.

This is just a sample of some of the many challenges Greene and Washington Counties face. But there’s hope. Read on for how the dynamic duo of Patrick and Veronica, along with the CCJ’s allies, are galvanizing the community to move beyond fossil fuels and towards a more prosperous and equitable future.

It might just change your life.


*****

What is the Center for Coalfield Justice and how did it come about?

Patrick: The Center for Coalfield Justice is a citizen’s organization that has been operating in southwestern Pennsylvania for 20 years. We started in 1994 as the Tri-State Citizen’s Mining Network, a grassroots coalition of volunteers from Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia who were concerned about the harmful impact longwall coal mining was having on their communities. The Center for Coalfield Justice has grown over time, adding professional staff and working on issues related to fracking as well as mining.

Could you paint a picture of the region in which CCJ operates?

Veronica: CCJ works in northern Appalachia with rolling hills and pastures; communities that have each other’s back through times of struggle and celebration. Throughout history, folks in this region have not always listened to what they were told, but fought for what they wanted. Today large energy companies are working to break down that support structure and strong will, so they can control the region for private profit gains.

Patrick: CCJ operates in Washington and Greene counties, the two most southwestern counties in Pennsylvania. This is a mostly rural area that traditionally was an agricultural-based economy. Over time, extractive industries have swept in to the area, displacing many working farms and reducing the diversity of economy. This area is now largely a single-source economy, with entire communities entirely dependent on extractive fossil fuel industries for their livelihood.

Just how big is the coal industry to the people and economy of Greene and Washington Counties (let alone the West Virginia Panhandle)?

Patrick: The coal industry has successfully transformed large portions of Greene and Washington counties into single source economies. There are entire communities entirely dependent on the coal industry for employment opportunities. Coal is a big part of the culture here, part of our heritage. It also something that this is region is ready to move on from. For years, the coal industry has internalized their profits while socializing their harm. They have reduced its labor force while increasing profits. This industry has demonstrated a gross indifference to the people of this region and at last it seems we’ve had enough.

Veronica: The coal industry and politicians boast that it is the only thing keeping the region going, but in reality that is not the whole picture. The coal mines do provide a lot of jobs but in Greene County about 20 percent of the residents actually hold them. Many of the workers are from outside the region. Due to the propaganda the coal industry spews, many folks feel like they cannot survive without the mines, but part of CCJ’s work is to show them that there is a future beyond coal and they can help lead the transition.  

What are some of the obstacles that you have experienced in your work?
 
Patrick: Fossil fuel companies are aggressive in their opposition to our work. Also, longwall mining doesn’t occur many places in the country and is not widely understood. If people knew about the damage that occurs from longwall mining, particularly the destruction of streams and people’s homes, public opposition would be widespread.

Veronica: One of the biggest obstacles I have faced in my work is community members who have become beaten down in their fight against the coal industry. The industry is very effective at delaying many fights and convincing people that it is not possible to win against them. Plain and simple, they are bullies. It’s not uncommon for someone to tell me, “There’s no point in fighting, we won’t win. The coal company always wins.”  But it’s my job to show them that it’s not true and together we are more powerful than the fossil fuel industry. Usually after several conversations with folks they will get motivated again to fight and are thankful to have CCJ standing with them.  

In organizing, our other challenge is the fear people still have of speaking out against the industry. Many folks have confided in me that they don’t like the coal companies and what they are doing to our communities but are terrified of what might happen if they go public with their views. The violent intimidation tactics that happened decades ago don’t occur anymore but the companies have gotten more strategic at intimidating people. They have placed security outside their homes, threaten to remove water they are currently supplying to the homeowner because their mining destroyed the original source, and make getting any damages from mining repaired a nightmare. Challenging the status quo in the community can also damage relationships with friends and family since most people know someone working in the industry. There is also a certain privilege that is associated with being able to call out the coal industry without repercussions, and we have to respect those folks who don’t have that privilege.

Veronica, you grew up in Greene County. Have you witnessed a lot of change, and have your deep ties to the community made it easier or more difficult to do your work?

Veronica: Unfortunately I have witnessed a lot of change in the county. The most disheartening to me is the character of our communities has significantly changed due to the coal industry buying people’s home and depopulating the area. There are very few young folks who are raising their families in the region anymore. The industry also rents some of the property they have acquired, so we have seen people moving into the area that don’t have the same respect for the community as those who have lived here for generations. The landscape has also changed drastically since the gas industry has showed up, creating many scars on our hilltops and valleys. There have also been positive changes. I have witnessed more and more folks getting tired of the bullying from the fossil fuel industry and start to stand up and fight for our communities. When I started working on these issues four years ago, I could list on one hand the people from Greene County who were publically opposed to coal mining and today I cannot even think of all the folks calling out the coal industry.  

Being from the area definitely helps my organizing, because some of the people have known me since I was kid and I can relate easily with folks. I have experienced similar struggles and have personal reasons to fight for a better future too. It also helps in rural communities because people recognize my name, which helps builds trust faster. Personally it can also make it somewhat more difficult. I have lost friends over being public about my views because their spouse works for the coal industry. People have a hard time understanding that I want a better future for the workers, some of whom are my close friends.

“Unconventional” fossil fuel extraction is a buzzword in the coal, oil and natural gas industries. With coal mining and horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking) going on simultaneously in the same area, is unconventional extraction a good description?

Patrick: Unconventional is another word for extreme and unproven. No one has any idea how these two industries will interact with each other. The state agency in charge of regulating the industries doesn’t know if this can be done safely but continue to issue permits in rapid succession. A common tact with unconventional fossil fuel extraction is the relentless pursuit of profits. They want to get their coal and gas and get out, hopefully before anyone can hold them accountable for the destruction left in their wake. I think unconventional is code for prioritizing profits over people.

Veronica: I don’t think it is a good description because it doesn’t paint a negative picture in my mind. I just think it just a little different than the normal ways of doing things. To me this activity is extreme. They are using extreme technologies to go after extremely hard to access resources and it has extreme impacts to our communities. When I hear the word extreme I think it is high-risk activity that can have serious consequences.

Do you know of any other place in the United States where fracking is happening over active coal mine fields?

Patrick: There are communities in Alabama that are dealing with the combined impacts of fracking and coal mining, but not at the same intensity and scale as is occurring in southwestern Pennsylvania. This area is the center of the Marcellus Shale fracking boom and the largest underground coal mine in North America. The sheer magnitude of extraction here is remarkable. Greene County is the second largest coal producing county in the country and is also home to thousands of gas wells. The people are the subjects of a grand energy experiment.

Veronica: I am not aware of anywhere else that this is occurring, but there are shale plays all over the world and it is possible that in the future it could become more common. We are just the first place and the test case.

What types of environmental and health problems are people in the region experiencing? Is it safe to say that water-related problems are often a bellwether for even larger problems in places where fossil fuel extraction occurs?

Patrick: The people of Washington and Greene have been dealing with industrial pollution for generations. Many share stories of swimming in streams orange with acid mine drainage or having to change white shirts midday because of the soot in the air turned them black. Connecting health problems with these issues has been a process and something we can continue to improve on. The fact of the matter is that companies won’t invest in places without clean water. People will not move to places that do not have clean water. This perpetuates dependence on coal and fracking companies to employ those who remain, because there are little to no other options. Addressing the environmental challenges of the region is the first step towards bringing greater prosperity.

Veronica: There hasn’t been any research on the health effects in this region but anecdotally there are higher rates of cancers, respiratory issues and gastrointestinal health problems. In one year in the community I grew up in that has a population of about 800 ; five people came down with a rare type of brain cancer, including two children. I feel that the fossil fuel extraction is partly to blame, but proving that is different story.

What is the future of southwestern Pennsylvania that CCJ and its supporters are working towards? Do you feel like you’re gaining traction in the community?

Patrick: We are moving towards a coal-free generation. In order to achieve that, the first step is holding industry polluters accountable for the costs of their actions. We are working towards forcing polluters to be responsible for their actions. If they pollute, they must clean it up. If they violate their permits, they must face consequences. The coal industry has not demonstrated that they are capable of acting responsibly. Their business model requires evading regulation or passing the buck onto others. When that is stopped and the true cost of coal is made clear, the region will finally break away from this dirty and destructive business and protect our future.  

Veronica: Through our organizing, CCJ is working to help build up community resiliency and resistance through several projects. Our hope is that folks can start to connect with others that have similar views and together we can start to work on transition away from fossil fuels, while also fighting to protect the natural resources we have left.

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