Last year's rally. Photo by Bill O'Toole.

On Wednesday, President Trump and hundreds of demonstrators will descend on Downtown, as both the SHALE INSIGHT conference and the Defend the Water rally return to Pittsburgh.

The President will serve as the keynote speaker for the fracking industry forum, organized annually by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group. At the same time, a group of several dozen leaders of indigenous communities from around the country will lead a water ceremony and march beginning at Point State Park and ending outside the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

The rally is being organized by a broad coalition of local and regional advocacy groups, including Pittsburgh UNITED, the Breathe Project and the Sierra Club of Ohio.

Speaking with NEXTpittsburgh, Breathe Project Communications Manager Deb Smit says the local rally has taken on a national dimension with Trump’s scheduled appearance.

Environmental activists from several native tribes will convene in Pittsburgh to lead the day’s events, with the Lakota Sioux activist Cheryl Angel giving the keynote address. Smit expects about 40 native American activists from around the country to attend.

“We hope to send a clear message to the SHALE INSIGHT conference,” she says. “We do not accept the expansion of this industry.”

At both the conference and the rally, the main topic of discussion will be Royal Dutch Shell’s massive ethane cracker plant under construction in Beaver County.

The plant, which will “crack” gas molecules to create ethylene for plastics manufacturing, has been hailed by local politicians (Republican and Democrat) as an economic lifeline for the region, while environmental groups are alarmed by the project’s hefty cost to public health.

Once it begins functioning, the facility will produce 1.6 million tons of plastic and 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide every year. According to the Pittsburgh Business Times, brokers representing ExxonMobil toured brownfields in Beaver County last week looking for a suitable site to build their own similarly-sized plant.

“The Paris Climate Accord will be impossible to meet if the petrochemical build-out takes place,” says Smit.

While the parameters of the debate over fracking remain largely the same since this time last year, recent public activism like the Global Climate Strike and the UN testimony of Greta Thunberg “helped to bring a lot more people into the fold to realize that we need to do something about this industry,” Smit says. “We would like to think that we’re starting to hit the tipping point for public understanding.”

A full list of speakers for the Defend the Water rally will be released shortly.

In a statement emailed to NEXTpittsburgh, Angel encouraged Pittsburghers attending the ceremony to bring water to represent their communities.

“Water is sacred. We know this. Those who are writing and ignoring the regulations have been drinking out of pipelines for too long instead of drinking from pure streams and creeks,” she says. “They have forgotten. We haven’t forgotten. We will never forget.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.