The potential sale of Pittsburgh’s legacy steelmaker and the possibility of a federal hydrogen hub coming to Allegheny County ensure that change is coming to the region’s energy, manufacturing and environmental sectors. And this November, voters will choose a new Allegheny County executive to steer the government into a new era.
For the first time in 12 years, Allegheny County voters will elect a new county chief executive.
Democratic nominee Sara Innamorato said she wants to promote the growth of clean manufacturing jobs while taking a hard line on pollution enforcement, and she opposes new fracking and a non-renewable hydrogen hub.
Republican nominee Joe Rockey downplayed the role of local industry in air quality issues and stressed the need to streamline permitting to promote industry growth — and he signaled a green light to new fracking and the hydrogen hub that many local leaders have already endorsed.
The shadow of steel
The candidates’ differences are clearly on display in how they suggest the county should interact with U.S. Steel. The legendary Pittsburgh-based manufacturer looms large over county politics despite employing fewer than 4,000 people in the region these days.
Innamorato urged working with industry and aiming to keep manufacturing jobs in the region, while maintaining a hard line on environmental standards and community agreements.
“I believe that in a strong economy, a portion of that needs to be manufacturing,” Innamorato said. “But those industrial partners, those corporations, they need to be good partners with their host community. That means that we are setting clear and rigid standards that protect public health and the environment.”
She said she would invest in additional personnel and training for the county’s pollution control division to pursue greater enforcement of the federal Clean Air Act.
Rockey said he would hold companies accountable to existing pollution laws, “but we should not, as a county, be fighting jobs and attempting to get rid of them.”
Both candidates independently brought up U.S. Steel’s 2022 decision to invest in a new modern steelmaking plant in Arkansas and its tangential decisions to cancel upgrades to the Mon Valley Works plant and decrease production at the Clairton Coke Works.
Both saw the moves as a loss for the region — the new Arkansas facility uses more sustainable steelmaking methods than existing Mon Valley plants — but placed blame in different places.
Rockey faulted the county Health Department, saying long permitting delays for planned upgrades to U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson plant led them to look elsewhere. The company itself said their priorities changed during a two-year permitting wait.
“The time it takes for us … to get a yes or a no to a development opportunity needs to be shrunk in order for us to be able to get companies to be interested in putting their operations in Allegheny County,” Rockey said.
Innamorato said she thinks the company looked to Arkansas because of the state’s “right to work” law that enabled the company’s operations there to use non-union workers, unlike in Western Pennsylvania, where the company’s plants are unionized.
“That’s a decision that U.S. Steel made, because they decided not to care for their people who actually deliver them profits,” Innamorato said. “They chose their profits over their own people who manufacture and make the products that make them money globally.”
She said, too, that she would work to speed up permitting, in part by filling open positions in the county bureaucracy. “So we’re not being obstructionists,” she said. “What we want to be is a partner in this.”
She said part of her strategy to encourage green manufacturing jobs would involve working with companies to help them tap into federal funds to retrofit facilities to emit less pollution.
Three takeaways from this story:
- Candidates for Allegheny County executive disagree on heavy industry’s role in causing and potentially remedying the region’s poor air quality.
- Democrat Sara Innamorato would take a firmer stance on enforcement against firms like U.S. Steel, while Republican Joe Rockey would be an ally to business to encourage job growth.
- The pair split on allowing additional fracking in the county (Innamorato is against, Rockey is in favor) and whether the county should pursue a hydrogen hub that is driven by natural gas.
U.S. Steel’s lean away from Pittsburgh could further intensify regardless of what the next executive does: The company is entertaining offers to sell to an out-of-town firm.
What ails the air?
The candidates ultimately may disagree on the causes of Allegheny County’s air quality issues. Communities in the Mon Valley often experience days of unhealthy air, leading to government warnings for vulnerable populations to remain indoors and causing the county as a whole to have some of the worst air quality in the country.
Rockey said in an interview that the county’s heavy manufacturing facilities are not the chief culprit in the region’s unhealthy air. A retired PNC executive, he said the region’s hilly topography and pollution flowing in from other regions are to blame, and that hypothetically closing plants would not make a difference.
“I believe my opponent, if she could, would have certain industries shut down,” Rockey said. “And I will tell you, I don’t believe that will have an impact. It will not change the overall air quality in the Mon Valley.”
Innamorato said “It sounds like [Rockey] got his talking points from industry, because they enjoy saying that quite a bit.”
In a later interview Rockey adjusted his stance, saying that often the county’s air quality “is aggravated by events outside the county” and the local valley topography, but that air quality would in fact improve if all heavy industry shut down.
Multiple scientists told PublicSource that Rockey is wrong to minimize industry’s impact, though topography and weather patterns — including inversions, which trap cold air below warm air — do make things worse for residents.
“I think if you turned off all of those big emitters, the air pollution level would have to be lower,” said Albert Presto, a Carnegie Mellon professor specializing in pollution. “It’s not just because the inversions happen, it’s because the inversions happen and there’s a big source there.”
Another Carnegie Mellon expert, Karen Clay, said research has shown that “we would see significant improvements from shutting down the worst polluters.”
“You see huge improvements [to air quality] right around 1980, at which point the steel industry collapsed,” Clay said. “So of course if there were some sort of equivalent shock that were to shut down some of the worst polluters in Allegheny County I think you would see improvements.”
There’s more recent real-world evidence that local emitters are causing health problems: A study released this summer showed that the closure of the Shenango Coke Works on Neville Island resulted in a steep drop in ER visits for cardiovascular disease among nearby residents.
Fracking and hydrogen
The candidates also sharply disagree on whether to allow new fracking in Allegheny County and whether gas should be used to fuel a new hydrogen hub in the county, something that incumbent county leaders and industry leaders are seeking.
Innamorato pointed to recent University of Pittsburgh studies that showed worse health outcomes for people who lived near fracking wells in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and said the county is too dense for the practice to be safe.
“We have Republicans and corporations that just want to create a profit and it doesn’t matter who they harm or who picks up the bill in their wake,” Innamorato said. “That’s what we’ve seen with the fracking industry across Pennsylvania.”
She did not suggest trying to revoke existing fracking permits in the county, of which there are very few. “Let’s ensure that it’s monitored and it’s the safest it can possibly be,” she said.
Rockey referenced national Democratic politicians who have supported fracking and called it a bridge to a cleaner energy economy. “We need to leverage reliable energy, which Western Pennsylvania offers through the use of natural gas.”
The pair’s disagreement over fracking spills into a regional push to land federal funding for a new hydrogen hub in the county. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021 included funding for four “clean hydrogen hubs” in the country. State, county and business leaders are pushing hard for one in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The proposed hub, though, would be a “blue” hydrogen hub (powered by natural gas) rather than a “green” one powered by renewable energy.
Hydrogen is widely seen as a significant route to reducing emissions worldwide, so long as it is produced using clean methods.
Rockey supports the proposed hub, calling it “an incredible jobs opportunity and a scientific advancement of how to bring green into the future.”
Innamorato acknowledged that hydrogen has a prominent role in the world’s clean energy future, but that the hub as proposed “has a lot of question marks” and should not rely on fossil fuels.
“I think we get this fervor and the industry whispers into Republicans’ ears that this is how we can continue to make money,” she said. “But you can also make hydrogen in a very green or carbon neutral way through electrolysis. That’s the thing that I would like to talk about.”
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Tanya Babbar
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Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.