Tour Reflection by Alexandra Cheek

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Alex is a geology student at California University of Pennsylvania who is interning with The Center for the spring semester. Last week, she went on CCJ’s “Fracking and the Coalfields” tour with Executive Director Veronica Coptis. Below are her reflections on the experience.

An Afternoon in the Coalfields

We were standing in Enon Cemetery on a snowy, overcast morning. There amongst the gravestones and coal, I listened to Veronica tell the story of the Bailey Mine Complex that loomed over us with its twinkling lights and industrial clatter. As the largest underground mining operation in North America, the Pennsylvania Mining Complex (Bailey, Harvey and Enlow Fork) longwall mining operation is just about the size of Manhattan, but underfoot. We discussed “clean coal”, which, spoiler alert, doesn’t exist, and how intertwined southwestern PA’s people and politics are with the coal industry.

Over the course of the afternoon, we navigated through Greene and Washington counties, following well traffic all over rural southwestern Pennsylvania. Looking out the window were signs that directed the different energy corporations down the winding, crumbling, nearly single lane country roads to their respective well pads. If you weren’t in the direct path of a brine or water truck though, you could look in almost any direction and see the familiar shape of a drilling rig in the distance. We visited valley fills with their earthen dams holding back surface mining refuse, on the hillsides stark gaps in the trees where pipelines were constructed. I can’t imagine that most of the residents within these counties could have envisioned the long term effects that mining or the shale gas boom would have on the infrastructure, air quality or the landscape in their towns, let alone the not too distant future environmental impacts.

As a geology student, resource extraction and the positive and negative impacts associated with them is something that’s discussed pretty regularly, though it’s not quite the same as visiting an area that has truly been affected by it. As we hit one of our last stops, Ryerson Station State Park, Veronica talked about the emotional ties that she and many others in the area have with the park and the grief they experienced after the loss of Duke Lake. If you’re not familiar with the story of Duke Lake, in 2004 the 62-acre lake needed an emergency drawdown after cracks occurred in the dam as a result of subsidence from longwall mining operations. Duke Lake had been a hub of activity for many residents who enjoyed fishing there during the summer.

After the tour, I tried to imagine what it would be like to look out my window or drive down the road and every day encounter all of these impacts and not feel totally despondent. Or perhaps even worse, not realize the full impact on my health or environment because it’s all I’ve ever known. It’s not by chance that this type of development occurs here, and the fact that this area is abundant in resources isn’t the only reason. The areas where extraction is occurring most are often areas of poverty, without access to educational resources to make the decisions at hand or the legal resources/support to make them aware of their rights or defend them when necessary. Going on the tour gave me a personal insight to the issues that are the norm in Washington and Greene County. If you have the opportunity to chat with a CCJ team member or request a tour, I would strongly recommend doing so.


Love is STRONG

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There are two kinds of people on Valentine’s Day: the romantics, covered in red and pink and hearts, and the cynics, who avoid Hallmark stores like the plague. Rarely do these groups find common ground. Through our work, though, we all live the shared value of love.

Love for our friends brings us to the streets to protect them from environmental, racial, and social injustice. Love for our allies allows us to trust that someone will stand in solidarity with us when we raise our voices. Love for our kids shows us how to hope for a better future. Love means that we persevere, despite industry’s buckets of money and politicians’ blind eyes and our own exhaustion.

Love is strength. Love is resilience. Love is resistance. And that’s something to celebrate.

CCJ looks forward to building resilience and forging common ground throughout southwestern PA with you. To support that work, please make a donation to CCJ below.


Happy Valentine’s Day!

Veronica, Heaven, Nick, Lisa, and the Sarahs



Meet Alex, CCJ's Spring Intern

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Alex is a Geology major attending California University of Pennsylvania, originally from Bunola, PA. Coming from rural Southwestern PA, she has seen both the positive and negative impacts of resource extraction in our area. Alex is excited to intern with CCJ to learn about community advocacy and educational outreach, but she’s most excited to spend time hiking and monitoring the streams within Ryerson. She hopes to take her experience at CCJ with her in her career as a geologist, with long term goals working for a state or federal regulatory agency. When Alex has free time she prefers to draw or knit usually while hanging out with her veiled chameleon buddy, Bowen.


Why the coalfields need a Green New Deal

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This week, the Office of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released the “Green New Deal Resolution.” The resolution outlines the goals, motivations, and responsibilities of the Green New Deal: a call for a collective effort to respond to climate change in a way that takes into account the economic, environmental, and social justice implications of changing climate conditions.

“A bold vision is desperately needed in our current climate and economic crisis. It is critical that as the resolution turns into policy, we listen to workers and frontline community members to drive the solutions” - Veronica Coptis, Center for Coalfield Justice Executive Director

Living in the coalfields, we all know that a plan to fight climate change won’t work unless it takes into account the needs of those most at risk - those who live with the everyday impact of pollution, environmental degradation, or resource extraction. We live in a place where our environmental concerns are inseparable from our economic concerns. The Green New Deal resolution has evolved over time to be more inclusive of communities like ours - and we support its language about fair transitions for our workers, diversifying our economy, and giving power to frontline communities.

We want to draw attention to a few of the Green New Deal’s resolutions and goals that make us particularly hopeful about the potential of this. We are excited to envision a future where our government is accountable to these principles.

The resolution calls for, with “transparent and inclusive consultation, collaboration, and partnership with frontline communities,” a government-launched mobilization to “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers.” We are particularly engaged by the aim of a just transition. We believe that a fair economic transition is possible for our region’s future - and with national support for our transition this future becomes even more possible. The resolution explains what this transition would require:

“And be it further resolved, that to achieve the Green New Deal goals, a Green New Deal will require… directing investments to spur economic development, as well as deepen and diversify industry in local and regional economies and build wealth and community ownership, prioritizing high-quality job creation and economic, social, and environmental benefits in frontline communities and any communities, such as those reliant on greenhouse-gas intensive industries, that may otherwise struggle with the transition”

For those of us living on the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction, climate/environmental justice is inseparable from economic justice. If we consider energy, we must also consider the people involved in and affected by the energy industry; if we want to build resilience to environmental change, we must also build a diverse and resilient economy. The New Green Deal strives to address both climate change and economic inequality. Through this, it gives our community hope for a better future.

Contact us if you want to discuss this in more detail.


Give us your feedback for a chance to win a prize!

We all filled out the survey! Will you?

We all filled out the survey! Will you?

The team at the Center for Coalfield Justice is excited to announce that we will be holding quarterly meetings for our members and supporters! (Our first one is March 21st) You are the center of our work; without you, we wouldn’t exist. This year we want to engage more directly in person with you.

Please fill out the survey below to guide our planning for these quarterly meetings and help us to have a better understanding of how you may want to get involved. There are so many fun and exciting things we could do!

Can We Get to Zero Carbon? Panelists Weigh In

The coal industry has undeniable impacts on our communities but also on our global climate. It’s not alone.

The coal industry has undeniable impacts on our communities but also on our global climate. It’s not alone.

On January 29, StateImpact Pennsylvania and WESA sponsored an event at the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh during which three panelists - Paulina Jaramillo, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University; Ivonne Pena, an energy analyst working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; and Greg Reed, a professor of electric power engineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School - discussed the possibility of achieving zero carbon emissions.

Part of the panel’s discussion focused on differentiating between carbon emitted for electricity versus for energy systems such as heating homes and transportation. The panel referenced the decarbonization of electricity as “low-hanging fruit.” Currently, technology exists such that renewable energy sources like wind or solar could be responsible for turning lights on throughout the country, although getting that electricity to homes through the grid would require investments and major updates. However, we don’t have ways to operate airplanes, for example, on carbon-free energy sources. The panel stressed that new technologies would be needed to address all the needs of our energy systems.

This, from a policy perspective, creates two ideas to consider in moving forward. First, our current policies are often not written in a way that would allow for advancements in and uses of new technology. Batteries, for example, are not always included in policies aimed at bringing renewable energy sources into homes, despite the fact that batteries are required in most parts of the country to keep a consistent, reliable flow of electricity. Additionally, current policies aimed at going zero carbon almost always are tied to technology as opposed to goals, meaning that wind and solar are prioritized over other forms of carbon-free power generation that could work better. The panelists also stressed that carbon capture and sequestration technologies must be developed, not to offset use of high-carbon sources like coal, but to clean the existing carbon from the air: most climate reports indicate that not only do we need to go to zero on carbon emissions, we need to go negative.

As a CCJ staff member, it was difficult to attend this event without the opportunity to talk directly to these experts. When asked a question about the climate impact of methane emissions from the natural gas industry, one panelist basically said that “in no way is natural gas worse than coal.” However, because of the way industry is required (or not required, more accurately) to report their total methane emissions, we can’t know their true cost to our climate. There are far more regulations on the coal industry, and they have stricter reporting requirements. This panel, because it was focused solely on the climate perspective, ignored other impacts that the oil and gas industry has on communities: water quality, air pollution, and nuisance concerns were not addressed. Their claims that natural gas has a place in our energy and electricity systems moving forward because it can support a reliable system isn’t an unreasonable thought, but any idea that it must remain a part of these systems flies in the face of the climate and justice crises this industry helps perpetuate. And finally, there was a lot of focus on Pittsburgh being the innovator in natural gas and energy industries of all kinds but a failure to recognize the sacrifices made by workers and low income communities along the way. It is detrimental to speak so positively of the gas well transition as a positive step in renewable energy for communities hit by the gas industry; especially during a time at which the gas is being extracted for plastic production NOT energy.


Permit to Use Beneficial Coal Ash to Reclaim Mine Waste Dump Under Review by DEP

The DEP is considering a permit application  for the beneficial use of stabilized flue gas desulfurization material (stabilized FGD or coal ash) at the over 400-acre Champion coal waste pile, the largest coal refuse pile east of the Mississippi, containing over 37 million tons of coal waste. The Champion Coal Refuse Pile is the lingering scar of Pittsburgh Coal Company’s Champion #1 coal washing operations.

Stabilized FGD, which is made by mixing by waste products from coal-fired power plants and lime or another alkaline agent, will be used in an effort to reclaim the Champion refuse pile. Stabilized FGD material will be placed on the site to promote drainage away from the waste pile and minimize filtration. This has the potential to improve the condition of the area significantly. However, if this process is not done safely and carefully, the material can be dangerous for the communities exposed to it.

According to the DEP, stabilized FGD is one way to help reclaim the coal refuse pile in Robinson Township, Washington County. However, it is important that this reclamation process is carried out safely, lawfully, and with public transparency.  Unfortunately, the permit application materials are only available in Harrisburg. Because the application materials are not available locally, we have several unanswered questions for the DEP about how they will ensure that our water, air, land, and people are not harmed by the transportation, processing and use of stabilized FDG at the Champion coal refuse pile.

Please take action below and request that the DEP hold a public meeting to provide our community vital access to information, relevant documents and plans, and answers to our questions.The DEP should also re-notice the public about this permit application, make the application materials available for review in Washington County, - and reopen or extend the public comment period so that our community’s feedback can be heard.

Send a letter to DEP using the form below:



Support Coal Miners, Urge Your Legislators to Reinstate the Black Lung Fund

Rates of Black Lung disease are on the rise in coal communities across Appalachia, but Congress allowed the excise tax that supports the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund to be automatically slashed at the end of 2018. The trust fund, already struggling to remain solvent, would need an increase from 2018 levels in order to remain a stable funding source for miners suffering from this disease.

While black lung benefits were cut, continued inaction on the UMWA’s pension fund were driving it towards insolvency, too, which - union representatives claimed - would happen by 2022 without congressional action. In order to save the pension plan, an additional $260 million would be needed so that the fund could meet its current liabilities and help cover healthcare into the future.

Take action now, send a letter to your legislator below.