Granddaughter of coal breaker becomes local leader against climate change

Not everyone in coal country was won over by Trump’s promises.

A group of protesters from Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania attended the People’s Climate March on Saturday, April 29. CREDIT: Samantha Page/ThinkProgress

For six generations, Leah Zerbe’s family has worked the land in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania, about 30 minutes northeast of Harrisburg. Zerbe and her husband took over 9 years ago, and now run an organic farm, leasing some of the fields to an organic hay operation.

But Zerbe calls central Pennsylvania “a sacrifice zone” to energy pollution. The town is nestled between ridges of the Appalachian mountain range in the heart of coal country and now the proposed pass-through route for natural gas pipelines running from the western part of the state to distribution hubs on the East Coast.

Zerbe’s grandfather, John “Potter” Zerke (second from left) died at age 62 of lung cancer. CREDIT: Zerbe family

Zerbe’s grandfather, John “Potter” Zerbe, supplemented farm work with a job in a coal processing plant. Potter eventually was diagnosed with black lung, and he died at age 62 from lung cancer.

That’s just one of the reasons Zerbe organized a group from her community to take two buses to Washington, D.C. on Saturday to participate in the People’s Climate March. Her group included at least one Republican, along with friends and neighbors and people Zerbe didn’t even know before organizing the trip. “We are building our local resistance,” she said.

“It feels good to be here and to see so many people that care,” Zerbe told ThinkProgress on Saturday. “It’s not always like this back home.”

Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania is Trump country, where the president got more than 70 percent of the vote in November — 15 percent more than previous Republican nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain.

Leah Zerbe at the People’s Climate March. CREDIT: Samantha Page/ThinkProgress

“People are frustrated. There aren’t a lot of good jobs,” Zerbe said. She noted that, as with many rural communities, there is a “severe opioid problem.” Schuykill County is 94 percent white, and the population has a lower education level than the state average. Not everyone there, Zerbe said, accepts the scientific consensus around climate change.

“We are marching for them, too,” she said. “I want jobs for these people. It hurts to see just in the last 30 years how it has changed.”

From 2014 to 2015 alone, coal jobs in Pennsylvania dropped 16 percent — and that latest data comes after decades of steadily decreasing employment in coal mining, due in large part to automation, but increasingly because of economic pressure from natural gas and renewable energy.

“We’re still considered the coal region. Everywhere you look in the streams, there is still that pollution,” Zerbe said. “There are some coal jobs [left], but it’s not employing many people, and it is making far more people sick than it is employing.”

Under Trump, coal communities are stuck between a rock and a hard place

Though the mining is mostly gone, coal ash from local power plants is being disposed of into nearby strip mines, and the natural gas industry is moving in. Just five miles from Zerbe’s farm is the route for Dominion Energy’s proposed Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline project, one of dozens of pipelines that are being laid crisscross the mid-Atlantic region.

Pipeline plans have enraged and stymied local groups, who say that the use of eminent domain is inappropriate, and who question the long-term impacts of fracking and natural gas dependence. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has been criticized for continuing to permit pipelines without looking at the upstream and downstream impacts of methane and natural gas.

New Gas Infrastructure Is Going To Completely Undermine U.S. Climate Goals

When asked about what she hopes for the future, for her nieces and for central Pennsylvania, Zerbe choked up.

“There have been times when I question, why am I hanging around in Pennsylvania?” Zerbe asked. “It’s so tough to stop pollution and clean up the air here… But it all comes back to: This is my family’s land. I often think about them working the same fields I work in.”

“I can’t give it up. I can’t think of anything more important.”

Zerbe says there are 40 proposed natural gas plants in Pennsylvania right now. “We are marching so they don’t all happen. Once they happen, we are looking at decades more of this,” she said.

Meanwhile, though, Trump’s administration is doing everything it can to boost fossil fuel production — both coal and natural gas. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency has rolled back proposed regulation on methane emissions at natural gas facilities. Methane, which makes up 80 percent of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas, trapping heat 86 times more effectively than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Pennsylvanians have occasionally attempted to restrain the natural gas industry. Both New York and Maryland have banned fracking.

And the president has repeatedly insisted that he will “bring back” coal jobs, an achievement that economic experts are sceptical is even possible. It will only be harder if the federal government continues to ease up restrictions on natural gas production — natural gas power plants are the largest challenge to coal-fired plants. Under current economic conditions, natural gas is significantly cheaper than coal.

But continuing to trumpet his anti-environmental agenda, Trump will be in Harrisburg on Saturday, celebrating his first 100 days as president.

Zerbe will be there, too. Her group is leaving the D.C. march early to take their bus back to Pennsylvania, where they will meet up with protesters outside the Trump event.

“We will find him, so he receives this message,” Zerbe said.


Granddaughter of coal breaker becomes local leader against climate change was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.