Native American activists leading a rally just below the convention center. NEXT staff.

This week, the leading lights of the fracking industry descended on Pittsburgh for the Shale Insight 2018 Conference at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Local environmental groups, Native American activists and zombies were there to meet them.

The conference’s keynote address was delivered by acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Since taking office in July, Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry, has displayed the same zeal for deregulation as his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, who resigned under a cloud of scandal earlier this year.

Undead activists protesting on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Maren Cooke.

Under Wheeler’s leadership, the EPA has begun the process of rolling back emission standards for methane and disbanded an advisory panel of air pollution experts.

“Regulation under Wheeler and Trump’s EPA will worsen asthma, especially among children and cause premature deaths,” says PennFuture president Jacquelyn Bonomo.

“And instead of taking measures to provide certainty to communities dealing with havoc caused by increasingly extreme weather, Trump’s EPA will subject all of us to the uncertainty and unpredictability of the growing climate crisis.”

Peaceful protests and demonstrations against these and other initiatives of the Trump administration filled Downtown Pittsburgh over the last two days. On Tuesday, as attendees entered the conference, they were greeted by activists in full zombie makeup.

“Our communities cannot afford the false promises of economic security from these boom-and-bust industries that always fail us in the end,” says Sarah Martik, campaign manager with the Center for Coalfield Justice, which helped to organize the undead. “That’s not a just economy.”

On Wednesday morning,  just as Wheeler was preparing his keynote address, several local environmental groups gathered to watch Native American activists perform a traditional water ceremony and song at the edge of Point State Park. The ceremony culminated with a march up Liberty Ave. and a rally at the Convention Center.

The local partners for the event included the Breathe Project, PennFuture and the Clean Air Council.

“Wheeler’s recently proposed reversal of standards that were already cutting methane from the natural gas industry is reckless because it exposes communities across the country to harmful and preventable air pollution and exacerbates climate change,” says Joseph Otis Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council.

Photo by Bill O’Toole.
Photo by Bill O’Toole.

The indigenous leaders of the event included local activists as well as prominent members of nations from Ohio and Minnesota.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh on the sideline of the event, Guy Jones, a member of the Sioux Nation who was active in the protests at Standing Rock in 2016, said he hopes their event makes Wheeler and his peers reflect on the broader costs of expanding the fracking industry.

“I would tell [Wheeler] to become more conscious of the effects corporate greed has on people,” said Jones as he strolled the edge of the Allegheny River. “It’s not only creating environmental issues, it’s creating a tremendous amount of social injustice.”

Bill O'Toole

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