Pittsburgh’s dirty little secret
OpinionGuest Columnist

Pittsburgh’s dirty little secret

City's air quality receives an "F"

Laptop, Computer, Desktop PC, Human Hand, Office / soft focus picture / Vintage concept
Laptop, Computer, Desktop PC, Human Hand, Office / soft focus picture / Vintage concept

Most people don’t know that Pittsburgh’s air quality receives a grade of “F” from the American Lung Association for ozone and small-particle pollution. Or that Allegheny County is in the worst 2% of counties in the country for cancers caused by air pollution. Or that residents of Allegheny County face a substantially higher risk of developing asthma than the national average.

For the most part Pittsburgh’s power elite covers up our dirty little secret in favor of perpetuating the myth that Pittsburgh is one of the most liveable cities in the country.

I love Pittsburgh. What I don’t love is that I bought into the “urban legend” that the “smoky city” solved its pollution problem 70-plus years ago. Regarding smoke, that is mostly true. What remains, however, is a less visible but more toxic combination of small-particle and ozone pollution that is literally killing us.

Pittsburghers have been fed a steady dose of good news, starting in 1985 when Rand McNally rated Pittsburgh the most livable city in North America. For years I proudly shared those links with friends worldwide.

Moving back to Pittsburgh from New York City nine years ago, when I retired, gave me a new perspective. I had been “drinking the Kool Aid” for years. How could we be the most liveable city and also have the worst air? How could it be that New York City is rated just below 50% nationally for air quality while Pittsburgh is at 7%?

Dozens of local community organizations have worked on this issue for years, collecting data and providing testimony to the authorities — who have failed to take action. That led me to conclude that the only way real progress would be made was through citizen activism.

My 40-plus years of experience in community organizing have taught me a thing or two about activism, and what has become clear to me is that people who are not beholden to the powers-that-be — who are not compromised by personal, professional, corporate and political interests — need to speak out. They need to call out the individuals and organizations that should be pressuring the county to act but for a variety of reasons have failed to do so.

It’s been an eye-opening experience.

First, one confronts denial. “It was so much worse in the past.” “If there is bad air, it comes in from other states, aided and abetted by our geography and topography.” “Our deaths from pollution can be attributed to the elderly who lived here in the bad old days.”

These nostrums contain partial truths that obscure the fact that the real source of our pollution is homegrown: U.S. Steel is by far the worst offender. Further, neighboring states have improved as we have gotten worse.

Next comes the failure to act. Allegheny County, our air-pollution-enforcement authority, has not done what it could do to force U.S. Steel to upgrade its more than century-old Clairton Coke Works, which is the source of much of our bad air. U.S. Steel/Clairton Coke Works still relies on 75-year-old pollution controls that have no backup systems. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, entrusted to serve as steward of the public interest, isn’t doing his job. Rather, he acts as a cheerleader for U.S. Steel.

While the city has no enforcement powers in this arena, it does have a voice and a bully pulpit, and it is good to see city leaders begin to exercise those prerogatives. Pittsburgh City Council Member Erica Strassburger, a newcomer to her position, has made it clear that we can have cleaner air and good jobs at the same time. She has provided an opportunity for citizens to register their concerns.
In the wake of two fires at Clairton that turned our most egregious ongoing source of pollution into a ticking time bomb, Council Member Corey O’Connor initiated a “Will of the Council,” a statement supporting Allegheny County Health Department efforts to prevent air pollution at both Clairton Coke Works and U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thompson facility.

The county has dragged its heels for years, and it is unclear whether its recently negotiated compliance agreement with U.S. Steel in the wake of the fires goes far enough, since it allowed the Clairton Coke Works to operate for over three months after the Dec. 24 fire and explosion that wiped out all of its pollution controls. That in my estimation is malfeasance.

Based upon the county’s decades of bare-minimum enforcement of air pollution regulations, why should we trust them to act decisively now?

It is incomprehensible to me that in the face of this constant threat to the health and well-being of all of us, our two healthcare giants, UPMC and Highmark, have been silent. Or that the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health has been silent. Or that the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which was created 75 years ago to take on the smoke-pollution problem in tandem with government, failed at its recent “Our Next 75” summit marking its anniversary and charting its future course to even mention that we are in the midst of a long-standing health emergency.

All of these so-called leadership groups could apply pressure on the county to do something but have chosen to sit on their hands.

When leaders fail us, the only way to make change is at the grassroots level. That leaves it up to us to let our city and county council members know that enough is enough. Let Rich Fitzgerald, our county executive, know that his failure to act is unacceptable. He was silent until the fires and then barely made any waves in the aftermath.

In the midst of all of this, Dr. Karen Hacker, the director of the county health department, has announced her departure. Tell Fitzgerald and your county council member you want a successor who is empowered to act decisively to eliminate the health emergency in which our county continues to be mired.

The county is great at declaring emergencies when some measles cases show up. Where is the declaration of emergency when hundreds die unnecessarily each year because of unchecked pollution?

Where are the voices of all the doctors in our community? While they treat our youth and ourselves for asthma at record-breaking rates, their voices are silent. How about the specialists who treat the elderly with pulmonary issues? Silent. Or the oncologists? Silent. We may not be able to influence all of them, but how about calling our own practitioners?

Denial amounts to death for too many. Let’s not let our leaders pretend that they can keep our dirty little secret forever. They can’t. We shouldn’t. The secret is out! pjc

Howard M. Rieger was president/CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, 1981-2004, and president/CEO of Jewish Federations of North America, 2004-2009. In retirement he is a community activist in Pittsburgh and Chicago.

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