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For over 20 years, Vicky Michaels has worked to clean up the Raccoon Creek Watershed that flows throughout Beaver, Washington and Allegheny Counties. Its forested hills and valleys have meant a lot to Michaels for her entire life.
"When I was little, my parents would take me and my brother down to the creek near our house and we could walk in the woods and catch crayfish but the water wasn't very pretty," Michaels said. "It was orange and it stank from pollution that ran out of the coal mines. I hoped that someday I could do something to make it better."
Now, it is better, thanks to the Independence Conservancy, the non-profit land trust she and her friend, the late Al Moran, founded in 1999. Michaels serves as the Conservancy's executive director.
"I'm pleased that I've been able to make a difference in the area that I'm from," Michaels said. "Now life is coming back to Raccoon Creek."
One story in particular sticks out to Michaels. A few years ago, she and a group of inmate volunteers from the Beaver County Jail were picking up roadside litter. They stopped for lunch at a pavilion at the edge of Raccoon Creek.
"As we were eating our lunches, this huge bird swooped in and snagged a fish out of the water. He sat in a tree right across from us and ate while we ate," Michaels said. "As we were watching this bird, we realized its head was all white. It was a bald eagle. No one had a camera, but I keep a picture in my heart."
While Michaels is proud of the work the Independence Conservancy has done, she has some goals that reach further than Raccoon Creek. Shell Oil Company is building an ethane cracker plant less than a mile from where she watched the bald eagle eat the fish. Michaels hopes Shell will help clean up pollution in Raccoon Creek and beyond.
"It's important because this area fueled our coal and steel industries. Our landscape has paid the price for building a nation and winning two world wars," Michaels said. "I've talked with the people from Shell. They get it. They understand we're trying to undo a hundred years of damage. If they set a good example and help us, other companies will follow."