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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.“How can it be that after two hundred years no one has come up with a better way of getting rid of coal waste? 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.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.Below ground, the practice of “long-wall” mining, which removes an entire coal seam, can crack buildings’ foundations and damage springs and wells, destroying water supplies.
It was dangerous, though; the slurry was too thick to swim through, and at least one worker had fallen in and drowned.“This is property owned by every resident in Pennsylvania,” Coptis said.“They don’t get to keep plowing through our communities as if we didn’t matter.”Since the mid-eighteenth century, Appalachia has supplied coal to the rest of the country, in an arrangement that has brought employment but also pollution and disease.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. “Maybe because I’m so powerless over so much of my life.”Around Greene County, Coptis carries a Russian Makarov pistol, partly to reassure her father.