In Greene County, Pennsylvania, The Coal Industry Scars Landscape and Culture

By Teghan Simonton

WAYNESBURG, PA—On the far side of town in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, the tall conveyor belts of the Emerald preparatory plant stretch high over the surrounding slopes. The plant, which used to wash and prepare coal for market, has been closed for about a decade, but still occupies the land across the street from a collection of small homes funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

In Waynesburg, the air is dusty and smells of gasoline. The days are punctuated by the penetrating roars of cargo trains and big rig trucks on their way to and from the industrial sites in western Greene County. Rural and small by most standards, Waynesburg is home to most of the county’s restaurants, small businesses and local government offices, as well as an elementary, middle and high school, and a university. For Greene County, Waynesburg is a hub.

In downtown, just up the street from the Emerald plant, Chuck Trump sits in First Federal Bank beneath a high, ornamented ceiling. His desk is massive, made of thick, shining wood, positioned next to a window. He wears a suit and tie, and on his hands, rings: his wedding band, and his bulky championship ring the conference wrestling title he won in college. He smiles and greets everyone who walks past; he knows everyone.

For Chuck, it’s a far cry from the lifestyle he grew up with. Like many residents of western Pennsylvania, Chuck’s family history is underground in the local coal mines. His father, his father’s father, his mother’s father—back at least two more generations, he said.

Trump is among the first in his family to leave the mines behind.

Most of the mining facilities today are located in western Greene County, said Veronica Coptis, executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice, and organization that advocates for the rights of coalfield residents.

She drives her Nissan along winding roads, narrow paths that cut through steep hills, and bright green valleys. The landscape is vibrant and luscious, with the morning sun glinting between trees beginning to shift toward autumn colors. But behind the hills rising on either side of the road, there are toxic waste sites from coal production.

There are roughly 2,000 acres of industrial operations set in this scenic community. Coptis describes the area as a “forgotten part of the state and the county.” Public hearings don’t come out this far, internet access is spotty, and economic development is basically nonexistent, aside from coal and natural gas production. That’s compared to the eastern side, where most of the county’s larger boroughs are.

Western Greene County is in “isolation,” Coptis said.

Her organization tries to advocate for these areas, she said. According to the center’s website, the primary goal is to provide residents information about the land, waterways and communities to help them make informed decisions about proposed projects. As she drives through the rolling terrain, for example, she passes construction for a man camp – temporary housing for mine and natural gas workers – that she hadn’t seen before. “Well, that’s new,” she said.

In this ever-changing landscape, Coptis said she wants people to be aware: like the people in the “HUD houses” who don’t have the resources to advocate for themselves when a mining company develops right in their backyard, or tunnels beneath their homes.

Coptis grew up in Rogersville, which seems like the threshold where east stops and west begins. She remembers the high school rivalries: students on the east were dubbed “sewer suckers” by their western rivals, who were called “pig farmers” in return.

Now, enrollment in the western high schools is dropping. Coptis believes it’s because of the mining companies buying land and displacing families, systematically depopulating the area.

She pulled her car into a cemetery inside the Bailey Mine facility, also known as the Pennsylvania Mining Complex. The facility was built around the burial ground—a common practice, Coptis said, if the company can’t get permission to exhume all of the bodies.

In 2015, according to the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, the coal industry provided 36,200 jobs in the state–approximately 7,350 in Greene and Washington Counties alone. The industry was estimated to have contributed a total of $1.94 billion to Greene and Washington Counties’ economies.

But just three years later, Coptis believes the coal industry will probably be dead in the next decade or so. Dwindling reserves and frequent layoffs result in hundreds of job losses every few months. In early September, for example, Morgantown-based Mepco LLC initiated the process of letting 370 workers go.

Things are different now. Coptis stood at the crest of a hill with giant coal silos towering above her and a tombstone inches from her feet. She pointed across the horizon to a natural gas plant being constructed on the opposite hill.

The burgeoning natural gas companies may replace coal. Coptis doesn’t know if that is any better—just another industry moving in to take advantage of the community’s landscape.

There was always some degree of fear when Chuck Trump Sr. went to work each day—stories were told, accidents happened. Explosions. Mine collapses.

When he was young, Chuck’s maternal grandfather was diagnosed with black lung—formally known as Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis—a disease caused by long-term exposure to coal dust that mimics the symptoms of tobacco smoking.

Chuck remembers his father coming home with coal dust caked around his eyes. “It was like he was wearing mascara,” he said.

Reflecting now, Chuck says his family’s history in coal-mining shaped everything about how he was raised—even if he did grow up to be a banker.

“I can remember I carried coal and wood as a 10-year-old,” Chuck said. As a kid, Chuck would cut the grass, split wood and complete other household chores. He said there was one word he was never allowed to say as a child: “can’t.”

Everyone in his family was able to fix things; they were thrifty and resourceful. They were a “self-reliant crew,” Chuck said. The women in his family were equally active, starting out-of-the-home businesses to help the family make ends meet. In lean times, his mother cleaned homes in the neighborhood. His grandmother worked at a pharmacy. His aunts and cousins were restaurant servers, beauticians.

“You pull together as a family to survive,” Chuck said.

The coal industry was slowly crumbling. It wasn’t in “decline,” per se, but it was becoming more and more unstable. Trump Sr. participated in strikes with other miners. When Chuck was in fourth grade, his father was laid off.

That’s why early on, Chuck said he was never going to join the coal industry. From a young age, his parents thought about where life would take their son, and they wanted something different.“My dad was insistent that I would work with my mind rather than my hands,” Chuck said.  

People weren’t always so attached to coal mining here, Coptis said. Historically—and ironically—western Pennsylvania relied mostly on agriculture for economic sustenance. Specifically, sheep farming. The mining companies didn’t move into the area until the 1970s and the Bailey Mining Complex didn’t open until the 1980s.

“It’s like we switched our heritage to coal,” Coptis said.

She drove into Ryerson State Park, a protected forest near Bailey. Inside the entrance, she pointed to an iron bridge that was damaged last year when Consol Energy was mining beneath the stream bed. A lot of local kids used to get their senior portraits and prom photos on that bridge, she said. Coptis had her wedding photos taken there.

It’s odd, she said, that Greene County adopted the coal mining culture so wholeheartedly, so strongly that the Center for Coalfield Justice is often painted as an enemy to miners. Miners see the organization as just another environmental group, sabotaging the industry that makes them a living.

“We’re the easy target,” she said.

This became especially true after the 2016 election, when then-candidate Donald Trump promised to protect and revitalize the coal industry by rolling back environmental regulations. Production has increased since his election — about six percent, nationwide — though analysts attribute this due to general restructuring of the industry. Experts say Trump has achieved comparatively little in regards to the coal industry, but the miners themselves are feeling more optimistic than they have in years.

So, people dress their toddlers up in hard hats for Halloween, posting to Facebook with captions like, “Future coal miner,” Coptis said.

“Coal mining isn’t even going to exist by the time a toddler grows up,” she said. The resources will be depleted in around 35 years, she estimates. After that, “the companies are going to bail,” she said. Some people disagree.

Things may be different now, but coal isn’t going anywhere, said Zach Smith, manager of external affairs at Consol Energy, one of the largest mining companies in Greene County, and operator of the Bailey Mining Complex. The industry is changing and is facing new challenges, sure, but to say coal will be wiped out entirely is an exaggeration.

“There is a common misconception that the coal industry is just dead,” Smith said. He believes companies like Consol are adapting to meet modified federal regulations, combat scrutiny from environmental groups and appeal to broader markets. In 2017, the Bailey Mining Complex turned out a record production of 26.1 million tons of coal, and improved average revenue for exports, according to the fourth quarter results. “Coal is growing globally.”

Smith said Consol Energy is constantly responding to permit challenges, lawsuits, and market declines. With natural gases more available and cost effective than ever, Smith said the coal industry has strong competition. But he believes Consol has been more efficient than others when it comes to staying in operation.

“There are always a lot of people within the industry looking for better ways to mine it, clean it, and be more efficient,” Smith said. “We are realistic with the market and the challenges. We have to be a lot more efficient with the way we spend mine, with the way we prepare for the year and the year afterwards.”

The question—to mine or not to mine—has caused the division in the county, Coptis said.

“People think we’re all like Hillbilly Elegy,” she said, referencing the best-selling memoir by J.D. Vance which chronicles the plight of impoverished whites in Appalachia. Coptis believes that the county has seen significant social and economic progress outside of traditional industry. “We’re not all like that.”

Chuck said there was never a time in his life that he thought he would become a coal miner. His father would never let that happen. Looking at the state of the industry today, plagued with instability and environmental controversy, Chuck said that’s somewhat of a relief.

“I’ve never not had a job,” Chuck said, shrugging in his suit, behind his monster of a desk. “I don’t take that for granted.”

After graduating from Waynesburg University, Chuck got married and began working as a resident director of the school. He was hired at First Federal within five years, and now has two daughters, ages 22 and 15. Chuck said he raises them by the same principles of his father: emphasizing hard work and high expectations for success.

Although Chuck never descended into the mines, he says they made him who he is today. Even if the industry falters, it has left a permanent mark. On the other end of the street, the Emerald Plant looms. On the other side of the county, the Bailey Mine hums.

Teghan Simonton is a senior from Waynesburg University studying journalism and public relations.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

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