A local environmental activist fights to prepare her community for life beyond mining.
One Sunday morning, just after deer-hunting season ended, Veronica Coptis, a community organizer in rural Greene County, Pennsylvania, climbed onto her father’s four-wheeler. She set off for a ridge a quarter of a mile from her parents’ small farmhouse, where she was brought up with her brother and two sisters. “Those are coyote tracks,” she called over the engine noise, pointing down at a set of fresh paw prints.
At the crest of the ridge, she stopped along a dirt track and scanned in both directions for security guards. Around her stretched a three-mile wasteland of valleys. Once an untouched landscape of white oak and shagbark hickory, it now belonged to Consol Energy and served as the refuse area for the Bailey Mine Complex, the largest underground coal mine in the United States.
Five hundred feet below the ridgeline lay a slate-colored expanse of sludge: sixty acres of coal waste, which filled the valley floor to a depth of more than a hundred feet. Coptis stared; it was twice as deep as it had been when she’d visited a year before. “How can it be that after two hundred years no one has come up with a better way of getting rid of coal waste?” she asked.
A flock of geese cut a V through water puddled atop the sludge. Recently, activists in West Virginia had paddled an inflatable boat onto a similar pond to bring attention to the hazards of coal waste. Maybe the same tactic could work here, Coptis said. It was dangerous, though; the slurry was too thick to swim through, and at least one worker had fallen in and drowned.
Coptis directs the Center for Coalfield Justice, a regional organization that advocates for people living with the effects of resource extraction. Industrial mining, she believes, leaves places like Greene County environmentally ravaged and reliant on a single, dwindling resource. At thirty, Coptis is an unlikely activist.
She grew up among miners, and her father, a surveyor, sometimes works for the oil industry. She heard the word “environmentalist” for the first time in college, at West Virginia University. (Local hunters and fishermen, whom Coptis sees as some of her best potential allies, prefer to identify themselves as “conservationists.”) After graduating, she moved back to Greene County and married Donald Fike, a former marine who worked in the mines.
When Coptis brings in outside activists, she often warns them not to expect issues to break down along tidy ideological lines. “The assumption is that rural America is this monolithic community, and it’s not,” she told me. She also warns them to be prepared for shotguns leaning against kitchen walls. Like many locals, Coptis learned to shoot when she was a child. “I find firing handguns relaxing,” she said. “Maybe because I’m so powerless over so much of my life.”
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