Environmental Justice

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.


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.


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.



Tour Reflection from Mimi Wahid

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Mimi Wahid is an intern from MIT working with The Center for the month of January. Last week, she went on CCJ’s “Fracking and the Coalfields” tour with Executive Director Veronica Coptis. Below are her reflections on the experience.

Coalfields Tour Reflection: What does it mean to be undermined?

As an intern at the Center for Coalfield Justice, I’ve heard a lot about undermining these past few weeks. I’ve been told about what happens when creeks and streams are undermined: sometimes the creekbed fractures, the water drains, the groundwater systems are affected. Something geologically permanent can disappear overnight. I’ve seen images and videos about what happens when a building is undermined: the foundation cracks, walls can shift, properties are abandoned. Something formerly sturdy can become unsafe. I’ve started to understand what the economic and environmental impacts of undermining—meaning, mining underneath structures and water sources—are. But on the tour of the coalfields I took last week, I saw what it looks like when an entire community is undermined: when a community’s power is weakened, when their strength is removed from underneath them like a seam of profit-producing coal, when respect, trust, and security are piped away like wet natural gas.

I rode in the front seat of Veronica’s car and listened as she told stories of the region. As we drove through Greene County, Veronica pointed to her right at a valley she used to play in with her siblings. She told us about how, in what felt like an overnight transformation, her favorite place to recreate on turned into a coal refuse disposal area. Sudden and dramatic transformations of land were present all throughout the tour. New roads cut through previously forested hillsides to accommodate heavy truck traffic. Valleys transformed into toxic hills as they were filled in with coal refuse. Our tour began at the Bailey Mine Complex coal preparation plant, where our attention was directed to the massive silos that store coal. Across the horizon, Veronica gestured towards two fracking well pads that, apparently, didn’t exist a few years ago. She explained that, before the wells were built, she used to point out this view as an example of the beautiful, undisturbed forests that CCJ fights to protect. In just a few years, the tour stop transformed from a message of hope to an example of the presence and power of the extraction industry.

While on the tour, I tried to imagine what it would feel like to watch the landscape around me transform; to see strips of trees clearcut to make way for pipelines, valleys filled with toxic refuse, and skies cluttered with towering cranes. I wondered how this might affect my sense of security in my home and on my land. I imagined that it would be difficult to feel powerful if I couldn’t predict or influence the changes in the air I breathe, the earth beneath my home, the water sources I drink from. On the tour, Veronica told us about the various resources, like coal and natural gas, that are extracted from Washington and Greene counties. But the tour also made me wonder about the intangible things that have been extracted: it seemed as though residents’ rights to clean water, sense of security on their land, and confidence in the region’s economic future had been removed as well. It made me wonder if there even exists a fair compensation for extraction of this scale and kind.

Going on CCJ’s “Fracking and the Coalfields” tour made me think more critically about what it means to be undermined. The tour showed me the effects of longwall mine activity through visible changes, like the empty bed of Duke Lake and the boarded up farmhouses that lined our drive. But it also showed me examples of undermining in another sense: places where the extraction industry has subverted, weakened, and removed power from residents. It reminded me of the importance of building and retaining power in communities affected by extraction. And it gave me deep respect for those with the strength to envision a different, more just, future for the coalfields.


Petrochemical Projects Given Green Light over Holiday Break

A drone’s eye view of the Mark West facility in Houston, PA, where the PA leg of the Falcon pipeline will begin.

A drone’s eye view of the Mark West facility in Houston, PA, where the PA leg of the Falcon pipeline will begin.

The PA Department of Environmental Protection issued water permits (Chapters 102 and 105) for the PA leg of the Falcon Pipeline to be built, run, and operated by Shell. This pipeline will carry ethane, a natural gas liquid, from Houston, PA’s MarkWest facility to the Ethane Cracker Plant in Beaver County. Concerned residents from Washington, Allegheny, and Beaver Counties - all of which will be impacted by the Falcon - raised concerns at a series of public hearings hosted by the DEP in early 2018. In its permit decision, the DEP issued responses to these concerns.

Slightly west of us, the OH Environmental Protection Agency issued the air permit for the PTT Global Chemicals Cracker Plant to be built in Shadyside, OH. Like the plant in Beaver County, PA, this cracker plant will take ethane and use heat to crack the molecules into ethylene and polyethylene, which is used to make plastics. Because of its location so close to the Ohio/West Virginia border, residents of both states attended the public hearing to express their concerns with the plant. The Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks, and Freshwater Accountability Project have joined together to challenge the permit.

While the content of both permits is troubling, the manner in which they were issued was equally concerning. Agencies have a tendency to issue hot-button permits when they think people aren’t watching: The PTTGC permit was issued on December 21, and the Falcon permits were issued on December 20, 2018. This move is akin to the Trump administration’s release of a dire climate report on Black Friday - it is an obvious attempt to ensure that the people most concerned about an issue are distracted and unable to rally the public. This is cowardice in its most undemocratic form. If decision-makers are truly making decisions that are lawful and viewed to be what’s best for the people they serve, why the secrecy and circumvention of public input?

If these projects and the backroom dealings that allow them to move forward concern you, sign up here to join a growing coalition of individuals and organizations fighting to put people over petro. We need your voice in the fight.


EJ Groups Gather to Discuss Breaking Free From Plastics

CCJ attended a gathering in Pasadena, TX from November 5-7 to meet with other environmental justice groups working to fight against petrochemical expansions and buildouts. Our Campaign Manager, Sarah, attended the gathering, which brought together people from across the country, from the Gulf South to the West Coast.

CCJ previously attended a Break Free From Plastics gathering in Houston, but the consensus from that meeting was that environmental justice groups were not proportionally represented in the space, so groups like GAIA and TEJAS with support from Earthworks arranged this meeting. Groups like Portand Citizens United, 5 Gyres, and Louisiana Environmental Action Network attended the EJ gathering. Break Free From Plastics is a global coalition that raises awareness of plastics pollution and the connection between each stage of the plastics production process, from fracking to ocean dumping.

One theme that was constant throughout this gathering was that the same few players - Exxon, Shell, Formosa, etc - are seeking to rapidly expand. More than $200 billion in investments by 2025 will spur more than 300 new or expanded projects within the U.S. Almost all of these projects, though, are designed to support exports of natural gas liquids (NGLs) used for the production of plastics.

These investments, however, do not come without an Achilles heel. Awareness is growing around the climate crisis, and countries, cities, and corporations around the world are reconsidering their use of single-use plastics and of fossil-fuel-based plastics in general. Lego, for example, is testing to find recyclable and plant-based alternatives for its colorful blocks by 2030 and is changing its business practices to eliminate contributing to landfills by 2025 by eliminating the little plastic bags within its boxes. Industry consultants McKinsey & Company theorize that modest improvements in recycling and more efficiency in packaging will result in a decreased 2.3 million barrels per day of hydrocarbons, whether from oil or gas, being used in the petrochemical industry. Single-use plastic bans and recycling requirements in the European Union are crucial to ensuring that those modest targets are hit and provide leverage for them to be exceeded. While recycling is not a true “fix” to the plastics problem, the organizing efforts of groups to address the consequences of plastic are clearly catching on.


What can you do to help stop the petrochemical buildout in Appalachia and stand in solidarity with those groups battling it out in Texas and Louisiana? Join our petrochemical mailing list (different from our CCJ mailing list) to take action, or donate!

Washington County Residents Take Action

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The People’s Climate March held by CCJ and Washington United on September 8th, 2018 in Washington, PA was a success!  Despite the morning forecast for potential floods and an all-day rain, over sixty (60) people attended. The people that attended marched around downtown Washington to express their concerns with the Climate, Jobs, and Justice.  Attendee’s stopped at both the Republican and Democratic Headquarters in hopes to provoke action from local legislators and let all candidates running that whoever wins must work for the people and not corporations.

Professor of Psychology at the California University, Ruben Brock and community members Laurie Maglietta, Briann Moye, Karen LeBlanc, Chris Ward and local children who face impacts all got a chance to voice their issues and motivate others during the March.  


CCJ and Washington United helped guide local community members to plan the March in hopes to build skills and develop leadership with our members.  These community members were included in all processes and planning meetings leading up to the March. We highly appreciate all of their work and effort!  



Register for Washington PA People's Climate, Jobs, and Justice March

On September 8, thousands of rallies will be held in cities and towns around the globe to demand a world with clean air and energy, healthy, family-sustaining jobs, and thriving communities that work for all of us.

The Center for Coalfield Justice and Washington County United are bringing these issue home in Washington, PA to demand our local officials take action on economic, environmental, and social justice starting at 10 AM downtown in Washington and concluding with a cookout.

Private companies and corrupt politicians have been benefiting off our community's resources and labor for too long. We can have a living wage, sustainable jobs that do not treat working-class families and families of color as disposable, but we need the political will to get there. If you are tired of not having access to quality jobs, education, and a healthy environment join us in the streets to demand action!

We can change the national narrative that the coalfields, small towns, and rural communities are happy with the status quo. Together we can create the change needed in our community.

Register to attend the march and stand up for justice in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Want to help with outreach, making art, or speak at the event contact Nick at nick@coalfieldjustice.org.

Environmental Justice Public Participation Draft Leave Out Oil and Gas Permits

The DEP Office of Environmental Justice has released a draft Environmental Justice Public Participation Policy, under the guidance of the Environmental Justice Advisory Board and with input from the Environmental Justice Listening Sessions. The draft Environmental Justice Public Participation Policy is open for public comments until August 28, 2018. While there are some improvements to the policy document, it does not go far enough to adequately ensure environmental justice communities will be heard in the permitting process.

In particular, the draft policy still leaves oil and gas permits off the trigger list to kickstart increased public participation. This demand was raised at every Environmental Justice Listening Sessions and should be added to the new public participation policy. In addition, DEP should use language requiring the applicants to follow this policy rather than merely encouraging them to do so.

Sign this petition supporting CCJ comments and demanding stronger EJ Public Participation Policy.