Don Hopey is a Pittsburgh-area native and journalist who, until the end of June, was, for 28 years, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette environment reporter. He was a board member and past president of the Society of Environmental Journalists and lives on Jefferson Drive with his wife, Carole. He intends to continue writing about the environment, but his focus, at least for the next little while, is on the end of his flyline.
What story are you most proud of writing?
I’ve been writing for a lot of years, so there are a few candidates. For me those include a profile of McKees Rocks in the wake of several murders for the Pittsburgh Press’s Roto Sunday magazine back in 1989; a series in 2003 about how longwall mining in the southwestern Pennsylvania coal fields was causing subsidence that damaged dozens of historic homes and buildings; and “Mapping Mortality,’’ a 2010 investigative series that documented the fatal downwind health impacts associated with coal burning power plants in the state.
But the one that stands out for its creativity and fun in the doing is the 1995 series of articles about an end-to-end relay hike of the 2,158-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine by reporters from five eastern newspapers. I hiked the middle 500 miles, from Virginia through Pennsylvania, the first 40 miles in Georgia, and the end up Mount Katahdin in Maine. The articles are collected in a book, An Appalachian Adventure.
What do you think will be the biggest environmental issue for the next 10 years?
The Earth’s changing climate and how well we humans manage and adapt to it is the biggest story—environmental and otherwise—of the next decade and likely the rest of this century. Transitioning away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources will not be easy or without its trials, but is necessary and overdue. The science is irrefutable and, unless strong steps are taken soon to reduce carbon emissions, the global impacts will be devastating.
You’ve written a lot of complicated pieces about corporate and industrial involvement in pollution, but what are a few simple things that everyone can do to have a positive impact on Earth?
Take an interest and get involved in your local government, boards, authorities and agencies where many important decisions are made about water and sewer issues, where shale gas drilling and fracking can take place, and how financial resources are allocated for parks, recycling, stormwater control and other environmental activities.
What story did you wish you wrote?
I wish I’d written Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, the 2019 Pulitzer Prize winning book by my friend Eliza Griswold about the impacts of shale gas drilling and fracking. And I wish I, along with other local media, had done a better job of uncovering, keeping track of and documenting the negative impacts of shale gas drilling on the region’s health and environment, especially the water resources. The scale of environmental and health problems caused by the industry overwhelmed state regulators, the well-intentioned volunteer watchdog efforts of environmental organizations and the dwindling number of journalists willing and able to do a critical dive into those issues.