Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Field Notes: Ryerson Outing

Last weekend, the Pennsylvania Sierra Club held its first event as part of the Forest Watch Campaign. Working with the Allegheny Group and the Center for Coalfield Justice, we brought a group of urban Pittsburgh residents and community members from Southwestern Pennsylvania to Ryerson Station State Park. There, we held two hikes and a workshop on bringing together different groups fighting natural gas, longwall, and climate issues.

Southwestern Pennsylvania is under attack from coal and gas extraction on all fronts and Ryerson, a 1,164-acre state park found in Greene County, is no exception. The park was home to Duke Lake, a reservoir lake and cornerstone of the surrounding community. Ten years ago, Duke Lake was drained due to the cracks forming in the dam. The Department of Environmental Protection later determined longwall mining at CONSOL’s nearby Bailey Mine to be at fault. We chose to have our outing at Ryerson to highlight these past injustices and to learn how to support the current work being done by the community members in the area.

We started the day with a bird-watching hike through Polly Hollow led by a DCNR employee. The park is home to a variety of birds, both residents and visitors, and more than 120 species of birds have been documented in the park. While we didn’t see many birds on our hike, we certainly heard a few, including the Orchard Oriole. Participants also shared knowledge on different plants and mushroom varieties we saw along the trail.

A little later in the morning, the rest of our outings participants began to trickle in. The main hike took place along the Iron Bridge Trail. This path follows some of the North Fork of Dunkard fork, a little feeder stream, and what used to be Duke Lake. Here, we stopped to talk about some of the hydrology at Ryerson and wetlands in particular. Members of our group highlighted the important role that wetlands play in regulating streamflow and maintaining water quality.

After our hike, we broke for lunch back at the Iron Bridge where we had a workshop on balancing the complex relationships between communities, extraction, and activism. Our participants broke into small discussion groups to tackle the question, “if you could end all coal mining immediately, would you?” The groups spent a while deliberating and came back with some thoughtful responses. As a group made up of local residents and urban allies, everyone had a different approach and relationship to the issues in the region.

While most people had an immediate response, the effects of their initial decisions became clear through discussion. Some participants talked about the need to stave off future climate disasters but others talked about the immediate harm to local communities forced into a coal-based mono economy. Other people brought up the need for a slow and just economic transition parallel to backing away from a carbon-based economy. Regardless of their decision, it became clear that we don’t win unless everybody wins and many people questioned whether they were the ones to make that call in the first place.

After our workshop, we caravaned to a few locations in Greene County to see the impacts of the coal and gas industry. We stopped by a gas compressor station adjacent to the park, a coal refuse disposal area which is a valley filled in with toxic coal waste, and the largest coal preparation facility in the county that processes over 20 million tons of coal a year.

Veronica Coptis and Eva Westheimer from the Center for Coalfield Justice shared some background on the current threats to the park. Currently the beautiful streams left in Ryerson Station State Park are under imminent threat from ongoing longwall mining that is predicted to destroy them. With the recent news that Duke Lake cannot be restored because of ongoing ground movement from mining subsidence, these streams are vital to renewing and improving Ryerson State Park.

There is still work to be done to save Ryerson State Park. To get involved and learn more about these efforts, please contact Veronica at the Center for Coalfield Justice. To learn more about CCJ’s work with Ryerson, click here. To get involved with the Forest Watch Campaign or to plan an outing in your area, contact me.

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