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A Daughter Of Coal Country Battles Climate Change — And Her Father's Doubt

Ashley Funk plans to move back home to southwest Pennsylvania to work on environmental projects in a place where climate change and the local economy are intertwined.
Stephanie Strasburg for WBEZ
Ashley Funk plans to move back home to southwest Pennsylvania to work on environmental projects in a place where climate change and the local economy are intertwined.

The economy in southwestern Pennsylvania has been hit twice, once by the collapse of big mining and steel employers, and again by the environmental destruction that accompanied those industries.

It's a part of the country that voted heavily for Donald Trump.

Ashley Funk grew up an hour outside Pittsburgh. The area feels kind of left behind with buildings named after mining companies and polluted ponds turned fluorescent, alarming colors.

By the time she was in high school, Ashley was a full-blown climate activist. She even joined a lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania, alleging it had not done enough to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Her beliefs put her at odds with her own family. Ashley's father, Mark, describes himself as a "coal burning farmer." During the primary season, Ashley was supporting Bernie Sanders and her father was an ardent Trump supporter.

It seemed like the two couldn't agree on anything. But when they start talking about local, natural gas jobs that have been popping up in southwest Pennsylvania, there is some common ground.

"Our area has been neglected since the collapse of the steel industry, the collapse of the coal industry, and finally something's coming back, and I think that's giving people hope," Ashley says. "But I am nervous; in order to make money people exploit the environment."

Her father now agrees that bringing life back to the local economy can't come at the cost of the environment.

"I agree 100 percent," he says. "I seen it. And I tell you the truth, I remember coming into Pittsburgh, that was the very early '70s, you'd drive through the tunnels, and it was black. ... I remember that. We can't let this place go like it was before."

Use the audio link above the hear the full story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.