GREENE COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA—Last weekend, I found myself standing in a cemetery beside one of the largest coal processing plants in the country. The plant is fed by the nation’s largest underground mining complex. The plant stood massive and tall beside the gravestones an oppressive shadow, its smokestacks like supersized headstones. The vibrant green grass of the cemetery felt like a sick joke, running right up to the muted gray industrial infrastructure.
Nick Hood, a community organizer from the Center for Coalfield Justice who was leading the tour that took me to this dystopian site, said that when this plant was built in the 1970s, the graveyard was already there. Based on the region we were in, it’s likely that some of those buried at this site worked for the coal industry. He said that according to longtime residents of the town, to make space to build the plant, the firm dug up some of the bodies interred there and moved them out of the way.
Standing under low gray clouds fit for a funeral, it has never been clearer to me that the fossil fuel industry is built on death. The coal, oil, and gas that form its bedrock are themselves the remains of prehistoric organisms. Many a coal miner and oil worker has met their demise extracting these dead plants and animals from the ground as have countless people living in the shadows of mines, rigs, refineries, and power plants. The fossil fuel industry’s most fatal act, though, is what it has done to the atmosphere; burning coal, oil, and gas has set in motion the sixth mass extinction—and humanity may well be in the crosshairs.
As my tourmates and I took photographs of the dystopian scene, Hood gently suggested we turn around. There behind us on the other side of the cemetery was a frack pad, or a site where the fracking industry drills for gas. This industry sold itself as a clean alternative to the 100-year-old dirty coal sector in the region. But it’s got skeletons in its closet, too.
I traveled to southwest Pennsylvania in a 15-passenger van earlier this month, waking up at 5 a.m. to make the trip with a group of local students and activists. Once we arrived after a five-hour drive from Baltimore, we spent the day learning about the fossil gas industry, which has gone from boom to bust in the span of a decade. Our tour guide was Lois Bower-Bjornson, who is the southwestern Pennsylvania field organizer with Clean Air Council.
Bower-Bjornson invited us into her home, where we met one of her four sons. He had curly blonde hair and his expression was warm, especially considering his home was filled with dozens of tired strangers just hours before he was set to head to a high school dance. He seemed completely healthy until his mom later explained that in the past four years, he’s been plagued by rashes and nosebleeds, which she suspects are connected to fracking chemicals in the water.
Bower-Bjornson drove with us around two different counties to meet people who have suffered living in the heart of coal-turned-fracking country. One of them was Rose Friend, a former school teacher. We met outside her Washington County house, where she was born 83 years ago and which has been in her family for more than a century. The land is deceptively vibrant: Purple and yellow flowers dot the grass and shrubs form a skirt around her house. But life here faces invisible challenges: Friend has long dreamed of planting a garden on her land, but she won’t because she’s nervous about eating anything grown there.
For decades, Friend’s relatives powered the house with gas from a local conventional well. In exchange for allowing its operator to run a gas line across their family land, they had an agreement allowing them to obtain fuel for free.
In 2007, a representative from a company called Atlas America knocked on Friend’s door. They were looking to use a then-newfangled drilling technology called fracking on her property to obtain shale gas from thousands of feet underground. Because they agreed to compensate her for the trouble, Friend signed the lease. For 10 years, nothing happened. But then, the agreement came back to haunt Friend, phantom-like. One day in 2018, she went outside to see workers chopping down her beloved 100-year-old Osage orange trees. Where the day before had stood trees that bore spherical fruits that are part of the mulberry family now stood angular stumps.
By that time, Atlas no longer controlled the lease. The company had sold its Appalachian assets to Chevron and then to EQT Corporation. Yet thanks to an aggressively pro-corporate legal structure, the old paperwork was still valid. It turned out EQT planned to build an access road and an artificial pond to fill with deadly wastewater right beside Friend’s home in its quest to access the gas rights that had been dormant for a decade.
In an attempt to ward them off, Friend’s daughter Karen LeBlanc called local officials to remind them that her uncle had found the remains of an Indigenous man on the property 80 years ago, meaning the project would be built on burial grounds. The family put out a call for local archaeologists to help excavate the land, but it turned out that they were too late; EQT had already hired an archaeologist to survey the site. The firm dug up bodies and artifacts from the land. But thanks to a legal loophole, once they removed all that history, they could continue to build.
Eventually, Friend and LeBlanc were able to prevent the company from building the impoundment lake on their property and construct it on a neighboring patch of land. But it’s still closeby and the industry is still all around her home, filling the air and land with death.
Friend is hardly alone in watching the land she holds dear disfigured. Dale “Mad Dog 2020" Tieberie, a retired coal miner, saw the trees around his home chopped down in the mid-2010s. Wesley Silva, a pastor and former council president of his locale who said the sounds of industry kept him up all night for weeks, leaving him in a zombie-like state. The industry is threatening more than the land, too.
Dozens of kids are getting cancer, including rare ones that could be linked to radioactive fracking waste. Some of those kids have perished. Others have died because of respiratory diseases from the industry’s air pollution. Many have been hospitalized for skin conditions, too. This is the industry’s human toll for those living near the wells.
And then there’s also the slow economic death in a region that’s no stranger to collapse. The collapse of coal has hollowed out the region’s economy. Now, fracking threatens to do the same. The industry has seen mass layoffs in recent years. One recent study showed it will never be profitable again.
The next morning, my group woke up early to meet Hood from the Center for Coalfield Justice and learn about the coal industry. He pointed out coal infrastructure throughout the area that was still in operation. But it’s clear that the industry is a mere shell of what it once was, and what’s left of it is crumbling further.
The death of these fossil fuel industries may sound like a good thing, but for some Pennsylvanians, it could be a disaster if that decline is unplanned. Coal mines are shuttering left and right. Thousands of old gas wells have been abandoned, left to spew out methane. Workers who once had good-paying jobs could be left with few choices, save working at the local Family Dollar.
“For my community, the end of [these industries] could mean death,” said Hood.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The world needs to end fossil fuel use, but it can’t leave those that helped us prosper while the economy was tethered to coal, oil, and gas on life support or in palliative care. There are myriad ways to restore the land and communities of a region that has too often been an afterthought. There are policy proposals to bring in new industries with new jobs, plug abandoned wells, and wind down the fossil fuel industry in a dignified manner.
Doing so, though, will require politicians that champion those proposals and turn them into law. It will require federal investment. It will, in short, require a way of thinking and acting that seems all but impossible in our current political environment and commitment to growing profits.
Standing in Enon Cemetery under the shade of the Bailey Mine Plant, I couldn’t help but think of the oft-quoted line, “the old world is dying and a new one struggles to be born.” For that new one to be born, we’ll need to push fossil fuels to their death—and just as importantly, throw a lifeline to those they’ve harmed.