Prove your humanity

Originally published on July 13, 2021

There’s an ongoing union labor dispute at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It has resulted in many journalists leaving the paper because of concerns over management’s treatment of staff and newsgathering, and through buyouts.  One of the latest reporters to leave is Don Hopey.

Hopey has covered the environment in the Pittsburgh region for more than 25 years, through reporting on air pollution, long-wall mining and the advent of fracking.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple checks in with our colleague about the environmental beat he has pursued all these years.

LISTEN to their conversation

Kara Holsopple: How did you get started covering environmental issues? Did you always have an interest? 

Hopey: I always was interested in the outdoors. My dad took me and my four brothers fishing quite often, on trips around the tri-state area, in the Allegheny National Forest, up the Allegheny River [to] Tionesta, Tidioute. That’s, I think, where it all started.

I would say my first big environmental story was when I was at the Altoona Mirror. I covered City Hall there, but there was a proposal by the city authority to strip mine an area around the Horseshoe Curve. There were lots of brook trout streams in the area, and to strip-mined that area would have killed the brook trout fishery.

I think we did about 80 stories over the course of a year and a half, and did our own water quality testing. We were able to show that this is an area that shouldn’t be mined, and that area was actually either the first or the second area in the state of Pennsylvania that was declared unsuitable for mining because it was just too good naturally. That law is still on the books, and there are several other places now where mining is off-limits.

Kara Holsopple: What are some of the other big issues that you covered early in your career? 

Hopey: I worked at the Pittsburgh Press for 10 years, and when the Press was purchased by the Post-Gazette, I came over and that was January 1993. So shortly after that, I did an Appalachian Trail hike. I hiked more than 500 miles on the Appalachian Trail, part of a relay hike with four other newspapers on the East Coast. I have friends that call it a boondoggle, but I thought it was one of the greatest assignments I could ever get, to get out of the newsroom for a couple of months and walk along and meet people and see some of this iconic trail in the U.S.

In the last part of the 90s, I did a lot of coverage about the then-new, hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio. I did a series of articles about hazardous waste incinerators across the country and the accidents that had occurred there.

Then longwall mining was a focus, I think, in the early 2000s. For that decade I was really doing a lot of writing and reporting on the mining industry in the tri-state area, and longwall mining, which was a different kind of mining than we’d been used to, and much more disruptive of the folks who live on the surface. Then in 2008, we got into the first Marcellus Shale story.

Holsopple: How did the fracking and natural gas development boom change your beat? 

Hopey: It just changed some of the companies I had to deal with and some of their spokespeople and who I dealt with.

But the beat itself, I’ve always tried to handle it in a way that gave voice to regular people, at least as much as the heads of industry or the heads of government. It’s been called small “d” democratic storytelling. My favorite part of the whole job is getting out in the field talking to those people who are affected, and that hasn’t changed. It’s just threats from a different area.

The problems, the health concerns, the damage to property, the damage to natural resources, remain pretty constant. It’s sometimes difficult because environmental issues can be very emotional. They can strike very close to home, I try to be very careful giving voice to them, but not voicing any type of hysteria or unfounded charges. It’s a tightrope. There are new players that come in all the time, but it’s a fairly constant kind of reporting.

Holsopple: Have you seen a change in how we talk about environmental issues over the last 25 years or how they’re reported? 

Hopey: Probably when I first started this beat, people weren’t talking about the environment or it was a very, very superficial kind of discussion. ‘Environment’ was thought of as much more of a vanity beat, I think, or even, you know, a kind of a little froufrou kind of thing, and not hard-hitting news stories.

But what I’ve seen evolve is not only has the public’s interest in environmental stories increased, but the way we have told environmental stories has become much more science-driven. Because of that, I think it’s become much more mainstream. I think it’s harder to deny some of the environmental impacts. That’s the biggest change I’ve seen.

Holsopple: I’m thinking specifically, too, about climate change. Even in the last five years, how different reporting on climate change has been, and over a career of 25 years, I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of change in that topic, too. 

Hopey: Absolutely. I’m not being too dramatic, and I’m not the first to say that climate change is the story of our lifetime. More than any other story around, it is going to be what this era is remembered for, how we address climate change.

Certainly, it’s been part of many of the stories that I’ve been writing about over the last decade, and more so now. We see it every day. It’s not something in the future anymore or something that we can say, ‘Hey, it’s coming.’ No, it’s here.

Holsopple: You’re leaving the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, as many experienced reporters have over the last few years, with a buyout by management. Do you worry about how local issues, environmental issues will be covered without the kind of experience and knowledge that you’ve brought to the work? 

Hopey: Do I worry about it? I think there are lots of good reporters still left at the Post-Gazette, and I’m hopeful that they’re given a chance to cover the environment. I think the beat deserves a dedicated reporter. There’s plenty to write about.

I am leaving with a notebook full of ideas that I basically didn’t get to. So the question will be whether or not the manpower is there when the Post-Gazette gets to its desired employment level.

Holsopple: I’ll take that notebook. 

Hopey: Yeah, I think I might hang on to that for a little bit. I don’t intend to really go away. I may take a break here for a month or three, but there’s some things I want to do.

Don Hopey was a long-time environmental reporter in Pittsburgh.