There are less than 5,000 coal jobs left in the state of Pennsylvania, and that number is shrinking. That’s good news for the climate, but what’s next for the commonwealth’s coal communities? Join organizers from the Mountain Watershed Association for insight on building community, protecting public health, and creating new opportunities. Plus, the natural history of coal, water quality watchdogging, and much, much more!
Learn more and watch the companion We Are Nature video series–including a short doc about Mountain Watershed–here.
Visit mtwatershed.com or facebook.com/mountainwatershed to get involved with Mountain Watershed Association’s work and to learn about protecting waterways near you.
Episode Credits: Produced by Taiji Nelson and Michael Pisano. Field Recording by Mark Mangini. Research and editing by Michael Pisano. Music by Mark Mangini and Amos Levy.
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Ashley Funk (00:00:02):
Every mine starts with an exploration or an idea that there's coal here, and we want to mine it in some fashion. The end game to every single coal mine is an abandoned mine drainage that is going to pollute a creek, a run, a stream, or a river. For every single one, that's the end point. There's an active deep mine just up the road. People are losing their homes. This is 2021. People are losing their homes to coal mining. People are losing their water to coal mining, their springs. The deepest concern is this entire mountain. The majority of people rely on well and springwater. If we lose that, what do we have? We're all sitting here wondering, if we don't do this work, if we don't fight these impacts, what will be left of the people of the Laurel Highlands? Without community, we are nothing. When communities come together, enormous things happen. Enormous things happen. Not only are we better connected to each other, therefore ourselves, but we get things done.
Michael Pisano (00:01:34):
Welcome to We Are Nature, a podcast about natural histories and livable futures presented by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I'm your host, Michael Pisano. In this first season, we're talking about climate action, as in what we humans can do to mitigate and prepare for climate change. Yeah, you heard me, climate change, that crotchety old dragon burning up all our thatched roofs and hay- filled wagons and piles of scrap hay.
I know that sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, it feels like the dragon's just going to ruin everything and that we might as well give up on our sweet flammable town, but for the next hour, I invite you to set aside your fear of burning to a crisp and instead to imagine anti-dragon action. Maybe it's redirecting some of our hay subsidies to fund fireproofing education. Maybe it's cleaning up the impenetrable bog outside town to reintroduce the dragon's natural predator, which, as we all know, is the impenetrable bog giant Venus flytrap, or maybe it's getting all the townsfolk together to pool their antacids into a dragon-sized tub of Tums. Whatever the case, for the next hour, we'll be finding reasons to be hopeful in the face of rising temps.
Throughout this series, we'll hear all sorts of reasons, from all sorts of people who are working hard and working together to address the changing climate for and with their communities. Today's episode features the Mountain Watershed Association, a community organization in the beautiful Laurel Highlands. They fight for the protection, preservation, and restoration of the Indian Creek and greater Youghiogheny River watersheds. If you've ever spent time in Ohiopyle or Seven Springs or around Fallingwater, then you know the stunning Appalachian mountainsides and waterways that Mountain Watershed helps to steward. Living in Pittsburgh, I know the Laurel Highlands is a destination for outdoor recreation. Drive an hour and change south, and a lucky Pittsburgher can be hiking through one of the five national parks or nine state parks there, climbing up Pennsylvania's highest peak or down into its deepest gorge, or they could be fishing or kayaking or swimming or skiing down a snowy mountain. Truly, the Laurel Highlands are an incredible place to spend time, and tourists agree to the tune of around $2 billion a year, making tourism the second most lucrative regional industry behind farming.
It wasn't so long ago that mining was the number one industry in the Laurel Highlands. As we'll learn, it's tied up with the history of Pittsburgh's steel industry, and they're still coal mining and other extraction in the area, but it's declining. The region's communities are faced with a transition in economy and identity and priorities, and groups like Mountain Watershed Association are helping people navigate this transition and the associated inevitable growing pains. They're doing it by building community around basic shared interests, like clean water. In coming together, they're creating new opportunities, they're stewarding their homelands, and they're nurturing resilient, hopeful futures.
I got to visit Mountain Watershed's office in Melcroft, Pennsylvania, this past summer. We started the day with some light water quality sampling along Indian Creek, and then I hung out in their backyard chatting with staffers, Ashley, Stacey, and Eric about 100-year floods, natural springwater, how to block a new coal mine, and all sorts of other topics, from the history and the future of the Laurel Highlands. We'll hear from all three of them in today's episode, starting right now with Mountain Watershed's Executive Director, Ashley Funk.
Ashley Funk (00:05:21):
So our mission, as we say it on paper, is to protect, preserve, and restore the greater Youghiogheny River watershed. We also focus on a sub-watershed that we're in right now. It's called the Indian Creek watershed. We do our work in three approaches, I would say. The first is active conservation work. We work to clean up damage that has been caused by industries in the past, predominantly the coal industry, and then we also do some other restoration work, like stream bank restoration. We also do monitoring work in that to test to see if there's any new sources of pollution in the watershed. We also do a lot of community outreach to interface with the community and really connecting people with their natural environment in an educational way. The last branch of what we do, which is part of probably the largest component of a lot of what we do, is our advocacy work. We try to prevent new harm from coming into the watershed that is going to cause impact for community members, their waterways, and also just quality of life in general.
A lot of what that is is focused around the coal industry within this area and then also the Shell gas industry. Even though a lot of people think that coal is dead, it is not dead by any means here. We have new mines that are proposed all the time, new processing facilities that are proposed all the time, and because we have such a historic legacy of mining pollution within this watershed, it feels really important for us to prevent new harm from coming down the road.
Michael Pisano (00:06:50):
Yeah, incredibly important I'd say. I'm curious to hear more about the history of extractive industry in the area. I mean, do you have kind of a brief version of that?
Ashley Funk (00:07:01):
Yeah. This area, for the most part, the coal mining was happening because we were the source for Pittsburgh steel industry. Our coal here is predominantly metallurgical coal, which is the type of coal that is then made into coke, which is then used for steel production. At one point, all throughout this area, there were thousands of beehive ovens, which miners would mine the coal, and then they would process it in these beehive ovens, and people talk about how just the sky would glow red. I grew up in a community that's just down about 20 minutes from here, and it's called Mount Pleasant now, but it was called Hell Town at one point, and people said that it would just glow like that. The zip code is actually 15666, and that is why the Hell Town Brewery, if you've ever heard of it, is from there.
Michael Pisano (00:07:52):
I [inaudible 00:07:53]. Oh, my God.
Ashley Funk (00:07:54):
Yes, they're from the town. It doesn't glow red anymore.
Michael Pisano (00:07:59):
Ashley Funk (00:07:59):
There are no active beehive ovens, but, yeah, that [inaudible 00:08:04] area [inaudible 00:08:04]-
Michael Pisano (00:08:03):
Ashley went on to explain that the name Hell Town actually originates from the Whiskey Rebellion when local resistance to attacks on spirits back in the 1790s caused then President Washington to lead 13,000 militiamen into western PA. That's a story for another time, but imagine that glowing red sky and the smell of the coke ovens. I think that Hell Town still makes sense as a name. Anyway, like Ashley was saying, coal mining in the Laurel Highlands was connected to industry in Pittsburgh.
Ashley Funk (00:08:34):
Yeah. This whole area was largely, so much of the extraction was for that, and the coal was transported a lot through the rivers because Youghiogheny, the meaning of that is the river that flows backwards. So, [inaudible 00:08:50].
Michael Pisano (00:08:50):
Youghiogheny, often just called the Yough, flows south to north, from West Virginia through Maryland and up into Pennsylvania where it meets the Monongahela River just south of Pittsburgh. Youghiogheny is a Lenape word that means a stream flowing backwards or in a contrary direction. Because it moves south to north, it's seen a lot of use in history of Pittsburgh's heavy industries.
Ashley Funk (00:09:12):
... south to north. So, it flows south towards Pittsburgh. They would use the rivers, and that's really what created so much of the landscape is using rivers and the rail lines to transport the coal up to Pittsburgh, and then it's used for steel. Still today, what we're seeing, mining is still metallurgical coal used for steel production.
Michael Pisano (00:09:32):
Let's talk about the history of coal in Pennsylvania. 300 million years ago, during a geological period that's actually named the Pennsylvanian, after our state's widespread coal deposits, Pennsylvania was covered in swampy, boggy forests. This environment produced peat, a chunky layer of partially decomposed twigs, leaves, roots, and other organic material you might find in a swampy, boggy forest. Peat is really great at storing carbon. As of 2022, even though less than 3% of the earth is peat land, it stores a third of the planet's soil carbon. Back to the Pennsylvanian period. Over millions of years, oceans covered the ancient peat forests. The peat was buried under marine sediments, and over many, many years, underground pressure turned the trapped peat into coal.
Fast forward about 300 million years, give or take, to the late 1700s. Pennsylvanian colonizers discovered coal deposits all across the state. The first bituminous coal, the kind that would later be used in steel production, was found just across the river from Pittsburgh in Mount Washington. Today, we know that the coal there is part of an enormous deposit, known as the Pittsburgh Coal Seam, which stretches 11,000 square miles over 53 counties in four states.
By the year 1830, Pittsburgh, on its own, was consuming more than 400 tons of bituminous coal every day. By 1850, Pittsburgh was the primary market for US coal, period. Coal surpassed wood as the largest American energy source in the 1880s, and it held that position until the early 1950s, when petroleum took the top spot. As of 2022, coal still provides about a quarter of all energy production worldwide, but burning coal accounts for almost half of global carbon dioxide emissions. Coal is energy dense, though not all of that energy is easily converted to electricity. The average coal power plant is only 35% efficient, meaning that it takes over 700 pounds of coal to light a single 100-watt incandescent light bulb for one year. This inefficiency and the chemical complexity of coal translates into air pollution. The carbon in coal has been locked up underground for hundreds of millions of years. So, burning it adds more carbon back to the atmosphere than what's been here for hundreds of millions of years. Burning coal doesn't just release carbon dioxide, but also mercury, methane, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, vault, organic chemicals, and other poisons. This is what makes burning coal bad for the climate and for human respiratory health. In the Laurel Highlands and other places where coal is mined, it's also a threat to soil and water quality.
Next episode gets very specific and joyously nerdy about what happens when you dig up 300 million year old rocks. For now, so we can get back to the Laurel Highlands, here is the quick, quick version. To mine that very old coal, you have to dig up all the other rocks between the surface and the coal. Those rocks contain lots and lots of different elements, and, unfortunately, a lot of these are not fun. For example, lead, mercury, cadmium, selenium, toxic metals that you do not want in your life. Also, sometimes, often, minerals that occur around coal seams create sulfuric acid when they're dug up and exposed to surface air, water, and microbes. The acid helps dissolve the toxic metal beds, and this wonderful cocktail of acid and metals, which is called AMD or abandoned mine drainage or acid mine drainage or abandoned mine discharge, AMD flows out of mines into waterways.
Ashley Funk (00:13:28):
A lot of the discharges around here that we see, some of them are a pH of around three, which is close to vinegar. So, you have bodies of water that are the pH of vinegar, and we know that vinegar doesn't really let things live. It pickles it. So, we can't have that for our waterways. This is something that, even with the technologies and improvements in mining and attempts for the industry to be better than they might have been in the past, this is always going to be a problem that happens. You will always, at some point, have some type of mine discharge because, again, you're ripping that coal seam out.
Michael Pisano (00:14:08):
If you've ever been out and about and seen orange-ish, red-ish, rust-colored water, that's very likely a sign of the metals in abandoned mine drainage settling out into a rusty, toxic sludge. The impacts on wildlife are what you think. Acid water, not great; toxic metals, not great. This is a widespread issue. The Pennsylvania DEP, the Department of Environmental Protection, has identified 5,500 miles of AMD-polluted waterways across the state. Almost 900 of those are in the Laurel Highlands.
Again, for more detail on all of this, check out next episode. I talk to a biochemist who studies abandoned mine lands and learn about some very satisfyingly sciencey solutions to clean up this mess. Speaking of solutions, the people of the Laurel Highlands are working on it. There are almost 70 AMD treatment systems throughout the region, five of which Mountain Watershed runs. Altogether, they treat almost nine billion gallons of AMD a year. Pretty solid.
This cleanup effort doesn't only benefit wildlife. I mean, people, of course, do need clean water. The Laurel Highlands' farmers need clean water. The tourism in the region relies on swimable, fishable water, and proximity to AMD is shown to bring down property values. If the Laurel Highlands cleaned up all its abandoned mind drainage, the one-time property value gain could be as high as $765 million. Pretty cool, pretty significant. Oh, and remember the orange rusty AMD sludge? Turns out that stuff is chock-full of valuable elements that would be unbelievably lucrative to mine. More on that next episode. This is a great example of how moving away from resource extraction doesn't have to be a story of loss and economic downfall as coal companies slowly abandon the area.
PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:16:04]
Michael Pisano (00:16:03):
Downfall as coal companies slowly abandon the area. Instead this transition can be prosperous, it can pay off and provide cash that will stay in the community. By contrast, the surviving coal industry, in its attempt to scrape every last bit of coal out of the Laurel Highlands, is literally threatening people's homes. Here's Ashley Funk again.
Ashley Funk (00:16:26):
Coal mining also, within the state, you're permitted to take someone's water supply, like pollute it or just take it, meaning that it no longer exists, through a mining practice, as long as the operator restores it. They say it's either equal or improved quality. So a lot of times, what this means is they'll try to drill a new well for someone if the mining operation takes their water. Or if they can't, they'll hook them up to public water. And around here, it's really challenging to hook people off to public water, because the public water lines don't run out that far. There have been people that I have worked with who have been on water, have had water buffaloes as their source of water. There is a heavy chlorinated water that's not really good for human consumption. They've had them for years with no water supply. And when you take someone's water supply, the value of their house is worth nothing.
And they aren't able to live the same quality of life. Another big concern around here is we have so many springs everywhere. A lot of people come to this area, because they know Seven Springs. And it actually is based on Seven Springs. But there's more than just that. And so, if a mine comes through, there's a chance that it'll take that spring water, which might feed livestock, which might be the source of water for your house. And spring water is exceptionally high quality water in a lot of times. It's really low in iron, which is really common around here in the waterways. It's low in different metals, and people really depend on it for a healthy form of drinking water.
You have companies that come into small towns all the time, someone like Nestle, and they want to privatize spring for that bottled spring water that you buy. That's the quality that we're looking at. And if a coal company takes this away, there's really no way that they can reproduce the quality of water in that same way. And we're also making it more challenging for people to live in a sustainable way, where they can use the water from their land that they live on. They can be stewards of that property. All of a sudden, if you have your water coming from a pipe, that comes miles away, you become more disconnected from that and from the land.
Michael Pisano (00:18:40):
Identifying this kind of essential shared interest can be helpful for anyone seeking to make change in their community. Mountain Watershed has had great success starting conversations across the politically divided Laurel Highlands, by focusing on clean water. If you're working on a similar problem where you live, think about what shared basic human right it might threaten and how you might lead with that when, inviting your neighbors to participate, regardless of their views on extraction capitalism. For more on water and rallying a politically divided community, here is Stacey Magda, community organizer with Mountain Watershed, who you briefly heard from at the very beginning of the episode.
Stacey Magda (00:19:20):
I talked to community members who are whispering on the phone to me, saying, "I source my everyday water. Every drop of water that I use in my home comes from a natural unfiltered spring." Pretty unbelievable ,considering the scope of the world and access to clean water in the world. And these people are scared. That's what they know, it's what they trust, and it is so valuable. This deep mine is impacting the safety of our roads. It's impacting our sanity, our mental health. The level of stress that's put on our community from these industries is something that I don't think is addressed enough. We hear a lot about the environmental impacts. The stress alone is something that's very, very serious. The deepest concern is this entire mountain, the majority of people rely on well and spring water. And if we lose that, what do we have?
We'll live off of cisterns. We'll wait the years and years and years and increased tax dollars to be tapped into municipal water, which we don't want. So oftentimes, those corporations are, not only threatening our community in a way by threatening our clean air, our access to clean, naturally sourced water, but they're also pitching us against each other, when people may be passionate about the history of mining in the area, versus people who are looking to preserve this area beyond the extractive industries. Today, I believe, those are the biggest threats to the Laurel Highlands and the Youghiogheny River Watershed. Tomorrow, the largest threat is climate change.
Michael Pisano (00:21:22):
We will get into climate change, for sure. But first, I want to stick with what you're saying about today's problems. I think a lot of people who are in similar places to the Laurel Highlands, where the problems go so deep as those questions of identity and the history of a place and these personal politics are getting in the way of these basic shared interests like clean water. What's your advice for working through that?
Stacey Magda (00:21:46):
Patience and keep a cool head. Stick to the facts. Stick to what you know. I have had many conversations with community members who are very much so kind of easy grabs to bring on our side of organizing and to preserve this area, to maintain the value of this area. Then I've had very difficult conversations. People being very, very upset that there are people coming into this area, people that live in this area, that want to see a change, that are addressing these major and often overwhelming concerns. And my goal has always been to be patient and to guide those people and to stick to the facts and to remind them what they already know, what they've already seen. So often, there are certain generations who have seen our creeks run orange and have had lost their own well water or have lived out of cisterns or have really firsthand experience with difficulties.
And we remind them of that and then, we remind them of how far we've come. The investments that Mountain Watershed has made in this area, in this valley alone that we're sitting in, there's nine and a half million dollars invested in mining remediation. The creek, today, there's a new kayak launch being planned on the creek. It's fishable. It is swimmable. There is a recreation trail that's connecting all of the communities in this valley. This is unique. This is new. This is something we know everybody enjoys. And it wouldn't be possible without the organizing against these extractive industries.
Michael Pisano (00:23:34):
Mountain Watershed's investments in mine remediation, new recreational resources, community education, advocacy, conservation, all of it is a bet on an enduring future for all living things in the Laurel Highlands. In 2020, the coal mining industry employed 4,800 people across the whole state of Pennsylvania. Outdoor recreation directly employs over 250,000 people in the state. As of 2019, that was 20,000 outdoor rec jobs in the Laurel Highlands alone. While coal mining is shrinking, ecotourism is growing. So again, Mountain Watershed and their allies are investing in a sustainable future. And I don't just mean sustainable for non-human nature, but also for people. Extractive jobs are, by definition, temporary. There's only so much coal. Recreation and conservation jobs will exist as long as the natural wonders of the Laurel Highlands exist. To realize really any future opportunities beyond extraction, the people of the Laurel Highlands need clean water. They can't live alongside abandoned mine pollution. They can't prosper under the looming threat of a new mine taking their water or taking their home. All that's well and good, but when it comes down to it, how do you stop a new coal mine?
Stacey Magda (00:24:56):
So I would say the biggest way that we are working and fighting back is we're staying connected. We're staying connected to ourselves, what we believe in. We're staying connected to each other, and we're staying connected to the issues. We're monitoring permits for extractive industries, whether they're in the exploration phase or renewal phase. There are several mines that are not even permitted yet and really kind of at a standstill, in terms of the progress of being officially made a mine. And the communities are still meeting every single month, because we know, when we go away, when we stop becoming organized, that's when the action happens on the industry's part. And so, we work.
And every month, we meet, no matter what. We are creating space for people to come together to learn and understand the process of these industry, the permitting process, which can be very complicated. But we try to simplify it for everyone and just really clearly explain to them how you can take action and in what ways. Sign campaigns. We are spreading the word, not only by word of mouth or content, but also, via yard signs, which are very impactful. They're explaining, not only to each other, your neighbors, not only standing your ground, but especially in a tourism area. For every visitor that drives by a no coal mine sign, they're wondering, "is an industry threatening the place that I love to get away?"
Michael Pisano (00:26:45):
And for those people who are driving through, who don't live in the Laurel Highlands, how can they help? How can they get involved?
Stacey Magda (00:26:53):
Absolutely. You can stay in tune with us. Our Mountain Watershed offices are located here, essentially in the Laurel Highlands. If you're headed to Ohiopyle or Falling Water, you are likely driving right past our offices. Stop in and see us. Give us a call. Tune in on Facebook. We're really active with content there. Our website, mountainmtwatershed.com has all of our issues that we're working on explicitly explained there. Come to a community meeting. You do not have to live here to protect this place, because let me tell you, if you were driving down the Scenic Byway on your way to Ohiopyle and you were stopped because a blast was occurring at a strip mine. Or if you saw orange running into the creeks, you would feel a lot different about this place.
So you don't have to live here to take action. If you see value in this place or any other place, get involved. Come to a meeting, write a comment to the DEP. If you have a baby on your hip, if you have two babies on your hip, come to the meetings. I will hold your baby. We see it all the time. There. There are truly no roadblocks in getting involved. There's no judgment in getting involved. There is a space for everyone who has the slightest bit of interest. The work is important, and it's needed.
Michael Pisano (00:28:37):
I guess we should talk about climate change.
Stacey Magda (00:28:40):
We sure can.
Michael Pisano (00:28:41):
I want to start with how you see it manifesting now, especially how you see it intersecting with people's lives.
Stacey Magda (00:28:48):
I feel like I see it every day. I personally live right on top of the Chestnut Ridge, which is the western most ridge of the Allegheny and Appalachian Mountains. The Chestnut Ridge gets slammed with all of the storms first. And when those storms hit, they are dumping a huge amount of water on the valleys below. And my home, I have seen anything from lesser snowfall in the winter to greater snowfall in the winter, with absolutely no normal patterns. I have seen drought. I have seen 4, 5, 6 inches of rain in one storm at my home. I have cleaned the mud out of my neighbor's basements after major flooding, after microburst storms. I've seen my trees, my beloved oak trees that tower over my home, I've seen them infested with invasive species, that are only being fueled by climate change. You observe it every day.
I think the scariest thing for me, because my family relies on well water is we're always making sure we get enough rain, but not too much rain. And that reliability in weather isn't here anymore. Even at my home, I don't have to use an air conditioning. Maybe two weeks out of the year, except for this year, was very, very hot in July. And because I have a child and we needed some more temperature control, we had to buy a big air conditioning unit, which meant more power. We were using more power. And the trees. I watch my trees every year, and I wonder, "What's going to happen if they all die? How many air conditioning units will I need then to stay comfortable, if I don't have the shade of my beautiful oak trees?"
Michael Pisano (00:31:05):
Looking ahead, this region is predicted to keep getting warmer, wetter, more extreme weather events, less predictability. If that continues unchecked, what do you think will happen here?
Stacey Magda (00:31:18):
If you view the Chestnut Ridge on, say, a satellite view or Google Map, you'll see how many quarries are established along that ridge. Those quarries have removed vital soils, trees, and natural resources. That is just, when these heavy storms are coming through, these major rain events are coming through, that that water is just running straight off the mountain into hollows and valleys. There are going to be people who cannot live there anymore. And people along river valleys and people further downstream are going to be impacted throughout this area. We all know the Laurel Highlands is a famous tourism destination, and we...
PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:32:04]
Stacey Magda (00:32:03):
... is a famous tourism destination. Currently, there are four ski resorts in the area, and they employ a lot of people in these mountains. If we cease to experience the winters that are typical to this area, to Southwestern Pennsylvania and our ridges in the Laurel Highlands, I can't see the ski resorts, skiing being an activity or an economic opportunity within this area. A lot of people will lose their jobs, meaning a lot of people will have to move away.
Additionally, if our wells dry up, if we're threatened by both extractive industries and climate change regarding our wells and springs, what are we left with up here? We need water. I hear people so often complain about the price of gas. Yeah, it's tough. What if we were paying four or five dollars a gallon for water? Measure every drop of water you use in a day. It's hard to fathom what we would be like. The risks are so many for this area, but I personally see the loss of water and the abundance of water threatening our homes and our roadways and our safety as some of the biggest threats in the area.
Michael Pisano (00:33:33):
It might be scary to acknowledge, but part of fixing things is taking a clear eyed look at where we're at. Some of the changes to our climate are locked in. Pennsylvania's weather will continue to be less predictable and more extreme. But how bad it gets is very much still in human hands. If you're wondering what to do with your human hands, check out the list of resources in the show notes.
And if you're wondering whether human hands can do anything meaningful at all, well, the answer is absolutely yes. Every degree of warming that we can prevent with action in our lifetimes will save lives. Every decimal point of a degree will prevent real future suffering. Call it harm reduction. Call it whatever you'd like. But I think that those are causes worth fighting for.
What Stacey and her community are doing to stop new industrial scale emissions is enormous. It's materially impactful, because, remember, it's big fossil fuel operations and other large scale industries that account for the vast, vast, vast, vast, vast majority of climate destabilizing emissions. And these big industries are not unstoppable. They're rich. To go up against money and the political influence of yesterday's CEOs will need a lot of people power. But getting people's attention, that's a real challenge. There's so much else to fight for and to be distracted by. And today, the truth is a slippery thing.
I chatted about attention and the American way of life with Mountain Watershed's Eric Harder, whose role as Youghiogheny River keep gives him an intimate hands-on view of the changing climate in the Laurel Highlands.
Eric Harder (00:35:21):
For our impacts, since we are more of a headwater located here and as we expand more downstream into our work, Connellsville is somewhere that has had yearly floods to the point where they've had to purchase homes from families and make sure that no one ever lives there again.
So when people up here have a disconnect from downstream flooding, and I think that's really the major ticket for people, is when they experience increased flooding or more impactful flooding, that's when the message will really hit home. Up here, we have maybe a rainstorm that feels a larger magnitude than normal. And the saying can just be, "Oh yeah. They're starting to get bigger." And then when you move downstream, that sense of that saying is like, "Oh, the flooding gets worse." And then it starts to weigh on people.
And the communities that are threatened by flooding don't just say, "Oh, that was a big storm." They say, "Pack up your things. We need to move out of our home." And that's a huge jump from a big rainstorm to losing your home or needing to permanently replace parts of your home or whatever it might be.
The change in mentality is so geographically fixated. We need people to experience the river, experience different trail towns along here to really measure that up. We always hear about flooding from Pittsburgh, so we know it happens. It's just that's the city, and we live in the mountain.
Michael Pisano (00:36:55):
Right. Yeah. There's a huge divide. It's only an hour away.
Eric Harder (00:36:57):
Yep. It's amazing how many people don't go to the city, don't even go to Uniontown, because it's off the mountain.
Michael Pisano (00:37:04):
Eric Harder (00:37:04):
When people say, "I have to go off the mountain," it's like they got to pack bags and make a whole day out of it.
Michael Pisano (00:37:09):
Eric Harder (00:37:09):
But it's really not too far away.
Michael Pisano (00:37:12):
Well, people in Pittsburgh don't cross bridges. I don't know if you're familiar with that whole-
Eric Harder (00:37:14):
That's very true.
Michael Pisano (00:37:16):
So this might be a step up from that.
If you're not from Pittsburgh or you're new here, the crossing bridges thing is real. Pittsburgh is surrounded by three rivers, and thus has a lot of bridges, more than Venice, somebody once told me, though I'd... Okay. Whatever. Some residents have a resistance to crossing those bridges to meet up, even though there are beautiful neighborhoods and delicious food and excellent parks on every which side of town.
I get neighborhood pride and loyalty. I get comfort zones. I absolutely get avoiding rush hour traffic in any city. But not crossing bridges and the idea of reluctance to drive down the mountain, like Eric was saying, there's something telling there about our cultural relationship with climate change.
Eric Harder (00:38:04):
When we talk about a coal mine or a well pad or a pipeline, not only do we know there's going to be direct community impacts, but it's all led by climate change. And whether we're talking about farming and concentrated agricultural feeding operations, known as CAFOs, what's the difference between a coal mine and large CAFOs when it comes to climate change? They're all part of the problem.
And really, the issues are created at the personal level. We want nice burgers and we also want them to be cooked over a propane grill. But now, we're getting the message across. Maybe eating meat, driving as much as you do, the American way of life needs to change. There's some reality that we all have to take into effect into our daily lives. And I don't think that's happening, to be honest. I don't think nationwide that's happening right now, which there's a lot of things to focus on and a lot of things to be distracted by.
Pending doom is a horrible thing to think about. It's like dealing with thoughts of the end of your own personal life when you're only 22 years old. There is so much time and so many other things that you can focus on. And regional climate, world climate is really getting into those, addressing those feelings, not denying and saying, "Oh no. I'm an American. I'm a human. I'm gifted these rights because I'm these certain things."
Michael Pisano (00:39:43):
What are the different ways that you think people are motivated to actually start changing their behavior and to hold bigger contributors accountable?
Eric Harder (00:39:52):
I think one thing is storytelling and getting those experiences shared between the people that have felt the impacts and those that maybe have not felt it, but are probably going to. And when we talk about injustice in different communities, that's one way that we can open people's eyes to what's happening, is show these different communities why are there so many poor people of color being affected by this in a different way than people who have money, people who have different demographic status.
And so I think that would be the easiest way for me to share an experience from someone who's been impacted through whether it's media, through whether it's the more prevalent podcasts about environmental issues. But now, there's also so much to listen to about fishing to serial killers. There's so many different podcasts to focus on. How can we really focus on the issues that are going to change our life, whether it's 50 years from now or next year, maybe when your job is lost because the economy changes and you're looking to get out of extractive industries?
And when you think about getting out, maybe that opens your eyes to what is actually happening downstream, downhill from what that industry does. As starting as a pipeline router and environmental perimeter for well pads, I thought I was doing the proper route, which I do feel permitting is important. But there's also a lack of regulatory oversight. There's problems with industry, corporate client relationships with not only the consultants, but also the DEP or the agencies that are in charge.
So I think it's hard for people to really personally feel that without having a shift in their life, whether it's a health, a outside environmental impact, or an economic impact. And I think those are ways that are, I don't want to say great opportunities, but the time where you really need to act and I guess dress yourself down and see what needs to be fixed or what needs to be worked.
Michael Pisano (00:42:13):
I'm curious about the tension between people who make their living from, let's say the outdoor recreation industry here versus the extractive industry. What is the local conversation around that alike?
Eric Harder (00:42:26):
First off, we have to step back and look at where we're at. Southwest Pennsylvania is very rural. You're going to have people who believe in one side, the other politics. And what we need to do is make sure everyone's focusing on the thing that matters, which is, for us, a lot of times it starts with clean water.
But also, that is connected to what's really important to people here, our property rights. And so if something is coming into the community that is going to affect someone else's property rights, it doesn't matter who you follow or what political stance you have. We can all come together and say, "This is something that's going to be here for a long time, potentially permanently. And what can we do to maybe oppose it, maybe make it more sensible for our community?"
So it's really hard to grasp everyone's true feelings. But when you can harness that focus into one main thing, whether it's losing your home, losing your well water, or losing your favorite place for swimming because of all different reasons, all of our different campaigns revert back to climate change, which is hard to get across to someone who needs a job. And maybe the coal mining or the gas industry is a great place for them to find immediate work.
And our organization would never turn away someone who at one point signed a coal lease and now they're having issues. We would never say, "Oh, that was your fault in the beginning." We're going to say, "This is what we can do. And this is how we would love to see not only your land, but the operator move forward and the community move forward in a sense of thinking of a community as a whole and not just your individual property."
Michael Pisano (00:44:29):
A whole community standing together is stronger or capable and more resilient. Ideally, this community includes humans and non-humans. To keep the community whole, we can't demonize or abandon the workers who the industry will turn loose as it fades away.
If part of climate change mitigation is stopping fossil fuel extraction, then climate change mitigation also has to include finding new jobs for the people who the fossil fuel industry supports. In the Laurel Highlands, MWA's investments are creating opportunities in outdoor recreation and conservation work. There's also the possibility of a transition to a green economy, replacing frack pads with solar farms, building out other energy and sustainability infrastructure.
In Pennsylvania, though, we often hear that a green economy will mean job loss. I asked Mountain Watershed's Ashley Funk for her thoughts on that.
Ashley Funk (00:45:30):
Yeah. I think baseline, it's not true. I think that it's a really big way that the industry has tried to influence public perception of what a just transition might look like for our communities. And so when I go out and I talk to folks who have worked in the mines all of their lives, my great-grandfather was a miner who passed away from black lung. There are a lot of people who their families were really involved with mining. And a lot of times, people want to move away from the industry. They look forward to their future generations and they think they want a better life for them. They don't want them to work in the mines. They want them to have a job that's not so hard on their bodies and on their way of being. It's just a matter of finding alternatives.
And so what I always think about, and what I'm always noticing is that people say that if we lose a coal job, that we then need to replace it with a green energy job, that it's apples to oranges, that it must be in this kind of realm. But whenever you actually look at our communities, there actually are plenty of jobs that people need. A lot of the service industry, the tourist industry, basic trades like plumbers, electricians, every community needs those.
I think the main thing that we need to be focusing on is the pay of the job that people are getting. And so the issue is that someone is working for a mine, one, a lot of the mines are subsidized, and that means that the companies are getting a lot of incentives from the governments, from local, state, federal. And all of a sudden, they're able through those programs and through just the fact that they're making so much money on the extraction of coal itself, they're able to pay their workers more and that people want that type of job, because they want a family sustaining job.
But the question that I always ask is, "Why is someone who's doing elder care or childcare or working in the tourism industry, why do they not deserve a family sustaining wage?" So I don't think it's a matter of actually even needing to create new jobs. I think we have plenty. It's just a matter of making sure that our priorities are in place in order to ensure that the jobs we already have that are critical for any community are well paid and can sustain someone and their family.
Michael Pisano (00:47:49):
This got me thinking, why is it that coal and corn get subsidies? If subsidies are an expression of what's valuable to our communities, well, what are the other things that we value that could use some monetary support?
PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [00:48:04]
Michael Pisano (00:48:03):
Any other things that we value that could use some monetary support? And is it the coal and the corn that's important, or is it the people doing the mining and the farming? If it's the latter, which I hope it is, then why not have subsidies supporting retraining and job placement for careers that will build a prosperous future for workers, their families, and their communities? I'm curious about how Mountain Watershed works with local communities to try addressing some of these big problems.
Ashley Funk (00:48:33):
So anytime that we're leading a campaign or we notice an issue, most of the time we're doing it because someone's come to us and said, "Hey, something is going wrong and I need help." So anytime we're working on an issue, there's always a key community group that is organizing around that, they're the ones that are really steering the ship and deciding where we need to go. And we always tell ourselves that we're doing our jobs if it means that we're taking a step back and we can watch a group of crew members do the work that they are leading and that they are passionate about and that we just give them the resources and maybe the connections that they might need to be successful. We're trying more to see, the ability for us to come together and just connect with one another and have relationships, that's just as important as getting someone to show up to do a litter cleanup.
I think it's all interconnected. And one of the things we did during the pandemic too was that we have these relationships with a lot of different funders who fund a lot of our conservation work and fund a lot of our advocacy work. And during the pandemic they said, we want to get money into direct service organizations that are working on food banks, that are working to get kids meals and all of this different type of direct service work. So a lot of how that was happening in our rural communities was through the fire departments, and even the local restaurants. One of the local restaurants here, they were providing free lunch to any kid who came in. So what we did was we worked with the funders, we said, "Hey, what about these different things?" They're not non-profits, but they really are having a big contribution to the community. And we were able to get them thousands of dollars to run these programs throughout the course of those early stages of the pandemic.
And so we see that work as really important because we need people to feel connected and as part of the community because when they do, they want to protect the place that they care about, they want to protect the place that they love. And that is something that feels really important as we're doing any kind of work, even if people like to put us into an environmental silo, I think that it's really important to have a community-based lens on everything that we do
Michael Pisano (00:50:54):
When it comes to climate change mitigation, what do you hope the people of the Laurel Highlands can accomplish before the end of this decade?
Ashley Funk (00:51:02):
Man, well, it is hard for me to imagine a situation in which we don't have any fossil fuels, I think within the next decade, that doesn't seem plausible in my mind, but what I would really like to see is less intervention from the state and really pushing these types of things from happening. Because we only have so much control, individuals, we only have so much control and the policies that we set in the United States, those really influence all of the world and the emissions that we have within this country are impacting all of the world even though they don't have nearly the same level of emissions. And so really focusing on how we can support people in being able to make the decisions that they want to make and being able to support people in making the decisions to be more energy efficient so they spend enough money and get more local produce and food so that it has a lower impact just because it tastes better and it's better for their neighbors and it's better for their community.
And I think that in order for that to be the easier pathway that is an accessible pathway, there needs to be a lot of support on the state and federal level that's just not happening right now. And so I would really like to see more investment in community scale systems because I think that that is the only way that on a community level that we're going to be able to really build the type of infrastructure we need. Because if we're looking at it much more broadly, it's so massive and focusing on it locally feels a lot more accessible.
Michael Pisano (00:52:46):
Now, especially if you are like me three out of seven days of the week and you're feeling overwhelmed by the climate crisis, Ashley really nails it here, start locally. You may not have the power, time, money, legal knowledge or whatever resources to convince Exxon to convert into a worker owned co-op and reinvest their vast wealth in green futures, but working together with your neighbors, you can stop a new fracking well in your town. You can clean up a river, you can plant more trees and native wildflowers. Local work can be done with global perspective. Strategies and stories from one community can help another community resist and build towards resilience against both exploitation and climate change.
Ashley Funk (00:53:31):
What we are doing is having an impact... Stopping a coal mine is within our community will help protect people's water, help people protect people's property. But then if we're also thinking about in terms of climate change, we're helping to really prevent a lot of emissions occurring that is going to cause issues on a global level. And we really try to focus on people understanding what the impact is going to be back to them individually. And then from there, taking people out of scale and saying how it's all interconnected, how maybe this is just a smaller company that might feel more local to you, but it's actually part of this bigger scale picture of these issues that are happening across the country and across the world.
I think that when people are saying, "You took my water, this company took my water." There is kind of this needed rage to really push people through to just say, "I'm not letting you do this and you're not doing this to our community and you're not going to do it to others either." And so we really try to push people too to not just be nimbies. Not just saying, "Not in my backyard," but to think about these issues on broader scales because that's the only way we're going to stop it. Sure, if we can stop this individual mine, then it might protect your water, but then what's going to stop the next company from coming down the road or keeping it from harming your neighbor? So we try to think about them on an individual level, but then scale up to the systems level so people can see the bigger picture.
Michael Pisano (00:55:08):
Here's a few final words on hope and getting started from Stacey Magda. I think often this kind of summing up of all these variables and bits and pieces makes it feel really overwhelming, people get into talking about impending doom, it's a lot of despair, I guess, going around. What personally gives you hope and allows you to keep on pushing?
Stacey Magda (00:55:35):
My daughter. I have a beautiful two year old daughter who has the future in her eyes. And I think for every person that loves her. Every person in my family, every stranger on the street that thinks she's a cutie pie, if they see today's youth as an opportunity for the future, we need to invest in that future if we love our youth, if we value their education and their opportunity today, then we need to invest in their tomorrow. So I see hope in the love that I feel for my daughter. I see hope in the love that other people experience for children. And I hope, and I hope, I hope that they put that love into action in making smart decisions every single day to make sure the children that they love have it tomorrow.
Michael Pisano (00:56:39):
Yeah, I think when people make that turn and they say, "Okay, I would like to contribute to a livable future, a different vision of the future." There's a lot of chatter on social media, let's say, about zero waste lifestyles, similar individual scale contributions. I'm curious about your take as a community organizer on that kind of thing versus perhaps community scale action.
Stacey Magda (00:57:08):
Do everything you can that gives you hope. If putting your sandwich in a beeswax wrap gives you great hope for tomorrow, do it every day. But also remember that there are layers of threats and issues that we all need to be working on every day. Without community, we are nothing. And when communities come together, enormous things happen, enormous things happen. Not only are we better connected to each other, therefore ourselves, but we get things done. There's a time that these creeks were orange, there was a time that mining was the number one industry in this area, it is not the case anymore. The progress that we've made and what is left to come is enormous. When we stop allowing these industrial corporations to peg us against each other, we have a very bright future of really being self-sufficient from our farmland not being strip mined, to our water being available and clean for drinking, for recreation, for farming, really the opportunities are endless.
We have such a unique opportunity in the Laurel Highlands to preserve a piece of America that is so foreign to many people who live in urban areas, and we still have it here. The future is for us to not just stay the same in all of the positive ways, but to protect ourselves and advocate for ourselves and make sure our property values are what they are and what they should be. And that this beautiful landscape can not only be enjoyed by the people that live here, but of course for the many, many people who visit for enjoyment.
So remember that the independent things that you could do on your own are real. And respect, by all means, but get involved in your community. If you see whether it's an industry that is going to fuel climate change and you're concerned about it, don't just read an article and pass it by, show up at a meeting. It doesn't mean it's going to take over your life. It doesn't mean that you have to be fully invested in it all the time. But even if you could show up at a meeting and contribute a morsel of energy, take a morsel of education and resources away with you, that's enormous in itself. Tackle every layer as best that you can. Don't try to save the world every day. This is a marathon, it's a marathon and we need to be able to pass the baton when people get tired. And we need to be able to rely on each other to do that, and that's what it's all about. So get involved, stay with it and be patient and positive and just don't ever stop talking about it.
Michael Pisano (01:00:58):
Next time on, We Are Nature, we'll get deeper into the science of abandoned mine remediation. It just so happens that the Carnegie Museum of Natural History has a resident expert on just this topic. It also just so happens that her research is extremely cool and includes interspecies collaboration to clean up toxic metals, so please join us again.
Many thanks to Mountain Watershed Association's, Ashley Funk, Stacey Magda, and Eric Harder for their time and their hospitality, for giving me many good reasons to hope for better futures this week. If you want to get involved and support MWA'S work, go to mtwatershed.com or search them out on Facebook to see what they're up to. Thanks also to Taiji Nelson, Bonnie McGill, Ciara Cryst, and Nicole Heller at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The music in today's episode was made by two of my most talented friends, Mark Mangini and Amos Levy. There's also a companion series of videos about climate change mitigation in rural Pennsylvania. You can find a link to those in the show notes. Until next time, here's some wise words to keep you all brave in case that hot-tempered dragon comes back to town.
"Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch feeling lucky, it is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable." That was Rebecca Solnit from her book, Hope in the Dark. I've been and hope to remain your host, Michael Pisano. Thanks for listening.
PART 4 OF 4 ENDS [01:02:55]