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Veronica Coptis

Veronica Coptis is a senior advisor at Taproot Earth, a new nonprofit organization focused on helping frontline communities battle climate change. Previously, she was the executive director at the Center for Coalfield Justice (2017 – 2023), which aims to protect the health and environment of coal mining communities and shift power back to the public. She credits being a mother with why she continues to fight so hard for environmental protections.

Getting Started

Veronica’s path to environmental activism began as a teenager. Growing up in western Pennsylvania, she was intimately familiar with how coal mining has the ability to unite a community, yet destroy the land around it. She lived adjacent to the Bailey coal mine, the largest underground mine in the country at the time. The mine had numerous surface processing facilities and coal refuse areas, which she described as “valleys filled with toxic waste.” When she was a teenager, a coal refuse area was installed next to her home. It opened her eyes to how a company could destroy hundreds of acres with minimal communication to the community. This destruction drove Veronica to rally against the coal industry. Looking back, she realizes that she had a unique privilege to speak out. Her parents were not dependent on the coal company, unlike most families in the area. Her passion for the environment drove her desire to go to college. She wanted to study biology, in order to find ways to save wildlife in areas impacted by the coal industry. However, her time in college was not easy. She was a first-generation student and found herself in an abusive relationship during her first couple of years. She ended up living with her parents after leaving the situation and managed to finish her degree. Unfortunately, Veronica graduated from college during the economic recession of the late 2000s and her grades were not high enough to pursue a graduate degree. She began waiting tables at a diner in her hometown and found herself developing friendships with several regulars. People would talk about working in the mines and shared stories of how the coal company would exploit them. They felt there was nothing they could do, since the coal company had a huge amount of control over the town, both economically and politically. In the fall of 2009, there was a massive fish kill in a creek near the town (Earth Island). A regular in the restaurant told Veronica about the kill. He was an avid fisherman and wanted to know what had happened. Near the creek was a fracking site, which used a saline solution to fracture rocks deep underground. The combination of water withdrawal, a dry autumn, and illegal dumping of the saline solution led the creek to reach seawater levels of salinity. The fracking equipment also introduced an unfamiliar species of saltwater algae to the creek, causing an algal bloom to occur. The bloom released a toxin that killed fish in the creek. This opened Veronica’s eyes to how small things working together can make huge impacts. She began to Google non-profits and joined an organization that worked against fracking. Eventually she joined the Center for Coalfield Justice, where she worked to organize communities against powerful coal and fracking companies. She credits numerous mentors from various organizations for her leadership and organizing skills.

The Work

Much of what Veronica has done is what she refers to as “Spade Work”: trudging through and doing cultural work to get the people in vulnerable communities to engage. She focuses on trying to make people realize that everyone wants a better future for the community, and shouldn’t have to choose between a roof/food and a healthy environment. Veronica acknowledges that this type of work is not easy. She has faced personal and political attacks. She was even told by an executive at one of the coal companies that she should just leave if she doesn’t like what is going on. However, she points out that it is easier to leave than stay. “If you have the privilege to stay in a more conservative town, it’s a cop out to leave. It creates a feedback loop where these communities become more and more close minded.” By privilege, she means just that. She notes that if you have a vulnerable identity (queer, POC, etc), it can be dangerous to be outspoken in these towns. However, she also notes that there is an assumption that the closeminded people are the problem, when in actuality, their hatred is often rooted in fear. “The system has been designed to neglect these people and exploit their resources. Unless we start talking to people and creating new systems to meet their needs, nothing is going to change. And no one is going to change things except for the communities themselves, through methods like community organizing and union strikes.”

"No one is going to change things except for the communities themselves, through methods like community organizing and union strikes."

Environmental Justice

Veronica believes that economic justice is related to ownership. It is not rooted in capitalism, but in community. While she pushes back against large coal corporations, she also wants to avoid “Big Green.” “Wind mills and solar panels aren’t going to solve working conditions or ownership issues,” she explained. She believes that isolated communities have been purposefully divided with issues such as race, class, and education. These internal divisions make it easier for companies to keep communities from coming together and working as a majority for their own benefit.


Veronica suggests doing a “Power Analysis” before trying to change someone’s mind on an issue. How much harm will trying to help someone overcome a racist stance (or other harmful ideologies) inflict on you? Is it worth your emotional investment and time? One way to answer this is by asking how much influence the person actually has. Your racist uncle probably isn’t as important as a racist elected official/police chief/union organizer. Try to connect with people in positions of power or who have respect within the community. If you can change their mind, it will have ripple effects in future town policies or conversations.

Relevant Links

Sources Cited

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