Two towering smokestacks presided over Springdale and Cheswick boroughs for years. Their heights rivaled that of skyscrapers in downtown Pittsburgh; their open tops spewed plumes from the coal burned at their base, which brought electricity to communities along the Allegheny River for generations.
But on Friday, at 8 a.m. sharp, explosives placed in hundreds of small holes drilled into the foundation of each chimney detonated, and the two towers — one each 750 and 552 feet tall with 3-foot-thick cement walls — came clattering to the ground in a cloud of dust and rubble.
The controlled demolition came more than a year after the power plant shuttered in April 2022, and its implosion marks the end of an era — a nail in the coffin for coal-burned power in Allegheny County that brought a mix of emotions.
“Nostalgia is most of it,” said Paul Pastierik, who was born and raised in the house nearest the plant on Garfield Street in Springdale. “It was a symbol.”
His father worked in the plant for 25 years and died of lung cancer in his sixties. When he came home, he “looked like he was working in a coal mine,” Pastierik said.
His mother was referred to by her grandchildren as “grandma smokestacks.”
“Some people complained about the dirt,” he added. “I was born under that stack, and I’m still here.”
“I miss it already,” said Darryl Banas, standing in a rose garden outside the home his father bought just over a block from the plant in 1946. “What source of electricity is going to replace it?”
Nationally, fossil fuel-based generating plants account for a quarter of United States carbon emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], and are responsible for the second-largest volume of greenhouse gasses behind only transportation.
The Cheswick Generating Station’s demolition comes just a month after the EPA proposed unprecedented new federal regulations for coal-fired power plants which, if passed into law, could significantly curtail emissions. The EPA projected that the new rules would eliminate up to 617 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2042, or the equivalent emissions of about half the cars on the road in the United States today.
Across the region, coal-fired power plants have announced impending closures. Most recently, the Homer City Power Plant and Conemaugh Generating Station in Indiana County and the Keystone Power Plant in Armstrong County have said they will close operations.
Operators cited the rising price of coal, low natural gas prices and increasingly stringent environmental regulations, like those proposed by the EPA in May, as contributing factors behind their decisions.
In Cheswick, nostalgia, relief and questions
Karen Wessel stood in front of the home of a friend who was having a watch party, waiting for the big boom. “It’s the end of an era,” she said, handing out cookies decorated with an image of the two smokestacks. “But it’s making room for progress.”
“I grew up here my whole life,” she said. “I’m ready for a change.”
When operational, the Cheswick Plant was one of the top sources of pollution in Allegheny County. The plant faced a number of lawsuits in recent years relating to air and water pollution at the site.
In 2019, the Sierra Club’s Pennsylvania chapter brought a lawsuit accusing the plant’s parent company, the Texas-based GenOn Holdings, of illegally discharging overheated water.
The station was originally founded in 1920 by Duquesne Light Company, and the first of the modern chimneys was constructed by 1970. In 2021, GenOn Holdings sold the facility to the Kentucky-based ash remediation company Charah Solutions, which spent the past year preparing the site for demolition
Plans for the site remain up in the air. Last month, the Springdale Borough Planning Commission recommended that the site be rezoned for residential use. Charah Solutions, however, requested that the site maintain its current zoning for industrial and commercial use.
The planning commission hopes that residential zoning could spur housing development in the borough, according to minutes from its March 8 meeting.
Representatives from Charah contended then that if the site is rezoned to be residential, it would be unusable. During the planning commission meeting on May 10, representatives from the company told the commission that existing environmental conditions on the site — including underground structures remaining after the demolition — make residential building an impossibility.
If the site were to be rezoned for residential use, these environmental factors, combined with the financial investment Charah has already put into the site, would constitute an unconstitutional regulatory taking of property, the company contended.
The borough council has not yet acted on the rezoning recommendation.
Lucas Dufalla is an editorial intern with PublicSource and can be reached at email@example.com.
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're glad 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 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.
We don't have paywalls — but your support helps us bridge crucial information gaps.
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're glad 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 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.