Rachel Filippini, one of Pittsburgh’s leading air quality advocates, has had to educate different industries on quite a few environmental matters over her two decades at the Group Against Smog and Pollution [GASP]. But first, she had to convince them to treat her as more than just a “tree hugger.”

Filippini left GASP in October after a 17-year tenure as its executive director. During that time, she sat on the Allegheny County Department Air Quality Advisory Committee. The number of staff at GASP more than doubled during her time there. The air quality in Allegheny County improved nearly every year due to varied efforts and several stakeholders, with whom Filippini practically had on speed dial. In the one part of the county where air quality did not improve every year, the Mon Valley, she has pushed for more stringent enforcement. 

Allegheny County touted its efforts to tamp down pollution, noting that even “substantial progress” will “never be enough” for activists.

Filippini left GASP to be closer to her family, in Armstrong County, where she plans to do environmental education work. On her way out, she has some thoughts to share in this short exit interview, including why environmental groups need to play more offense.

Question: What was one of your most interesting or memorable moments over the years?

Answer: I remember a meeting that I had many years ago with a school bus company. At that time, we were trying to get all the bus companies in the area to retrofit their buses, to put on diesel particulate filters, so they were healthier for students riding them. It was challenging. Even though we had funding to help bus companies retrofit, they were very hesitant to take the funding. They didn’t want to put anything on the buses that would screw it up, give it poor gas mileage or make it stall. Understandably. They had a job to do: pick up kids on time. 

I remember walking into the meeting with the company and they said, “Well look, we think you are a bunch of tree huggers, we’re not really convinced of what you want to sell us, but, hey we’re willing to listen.” 

So me and others were able to convince them because we came in with the facts. And if there was something about the way a school bus works, we went out and found it out. The lesson is you have to walk into meetings prepared. If you don’t know the answer, you need to find it out. You need to be sincere and honest. And ultimately at the end of the day, the bus company became a wonderful ally for the school bus initiative and became a poster child to other school bus companies in the district. 

Q: How do you think your tenure at GASP will be remembered? 

A: When I came to GASP, there were just two of us. And prior to that, everything was done by a voluntary board of directors and maybe one part-time staff person. We’ve evolved to a seven-person staff. I’ve helped to professionalize the organization. In the early days of GASP, all of our legal work was done by pro bono attorneys. Now we’re fortunate to have attorneys on staff and a communications person. Being able to have these professional positions at the organization allows us to get more done and be more effective.

“Well look, we think you are a bunch of tree huggers, we’re not really convinced of what you want to sell us, but, hey we’re willing to listen.” 

When GASP was formed in 1969, that was before an EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency], before the first Earth Day, before the Clean Air Act amendments. So we were really coming together at a time when there were not a lot of other organizations. It formed with housewives, doctors, professors, students, union workers. It was this very diverse group of people that came together to say we’re fed up with the air quality and fed up with the fact that we’re not part of the process, we’re not able to comment, not able to be part of the legislative or political process.

In those early days, most of the agreements and strategies were gentlemen’s agreements behind closed doors. So one of the things GASP did in the early days was push our way into meetings and demand a seat at the table. And that is something we are still doing 52 years later. Whether at the air advisory committee or subcommittees, we want to be there part of that process. 

So many times environmental organizations are coming in after the harm has been done, after the air has been polluted, after the soil has been polluted and they’re trying to figure out how can this mess be cleaned up and who can be held accountable? It’s so important when we can help set good policy and review permits to hopefully minimize pollution before it ever happens. So groups need to play both offense and defense, not always be reactionary. 

Q: If you had a magic wand and could pass a new law or regulation to address air pollution, what would it be?

A: It’s a tough one because some of our current regulations are just not being very well enforced and you wonder if there was just better enforcement across the board, what kind of benefit would that bring? In the short term, hydrogen sulfide continues to be a persistent issue that affects the Mon Valley and beyond; it’s really a quality-of-life issue. The health department is trying to get at it with the coke oven regulations, but U.S. Steel is fighting them on that. [U.S. Steel says a 2019 agreement with the health department takes precedent over the new regulations.] So in the short term, figuring out how do we get at the hydrogen sulfide issue would be one of my wishes.

Q: A previous public health leader told me that everywhere else she worked, activists attacked industry polluters. In Pittsburgh, the fiercest attacks focus on the regulators. Do you think you struck the right balance between pushing back against industry vs. regulators?

A: Yes, I do. I think absolutely environmental groups have to push on the polluters themselves and GASP does that, but we also have to push on regulators because it is their job to enforce the law. And if we do not feel they are doing that, then absolutely they have to be held accountable.

GASP has had this relationship that if we think the health department is doing something wrong or not doing enough, we will quickly put out a statement that is critical. But, at the same time, if we think they are doing a good job, we have often praised them for that. So I think it is a balance. 

I would hope the health department sees us, in a way, as a partner because I think we are a part of all their subcommittee meetings and we come prepared. So we are there to support them when they take strong action and be a watchdog organization when they don’t. They may not always like what we do and think we are a big annoyance, but we’re also a credible organization that deserves to be respected.

The lesson is you have to walk into meetings prepared. If you don’t know the answer, you need to find it out.

Q: Do you think the health department’s larger fines against polluters has helped?

A: The fines still seem pretty small to me. If one of the reasons for the fines is to be a deterrent to polluting, that’s still happening quite frequently. Just recently, U.S. Steel got fined for some releases of ammonia and we’re talking about a $5,500 fine. When we were posting about that, we got a lot of comments like: “What!? $5,500?”

Q: Now that you’re leaving your job, you can be more blunt about the role of public officials. Who is standing in the way of progress?

A: I think County Executive Rich Fitzgerald could do more for sure. He is the top official in Allegheny County and if he really wanted there to be significant changes in air quality improvements, if he made that a priority and came out and said very forcefully that air quality and public health are intertwined and improving the air quality is going to be good for the health of Allegheny County residents, and he meant it, that would flow down to all the agencies he’s in charge of.

PublicSource reached out to the county to get a response to Filippini’s criticism.

Amie Downs, a spokesperson for the county executive, responded with a statement about the progress the health department has made under Fitzgerald. The statement noted the fact that every monitor in the county meets federal requirements, including the Liberty monitor in the Mon Valley, which had previously been out of compliance. The health department has partnered with groups like GASP to increase enforcement and has taken increasingly aggressive measures, including more stringent rules for coke ovens, a new more severe penalty policy for violators and a new rule to reduce pollution during inversion weather events.

“We also understand that for the activists, these actions and substantial progress will never be enough,” the statement reads. “If there aren’t complaints and issues raised by those extremists, then they are less able to raise funds to continue their operations.”

GASP requested to have Filippini replaced on the health department’s Air Quality Advisory Committee with another member of GASP, as it had been past practice. But the most recent appointments by the county didn’t include a GASP replacement. “Appointments to boards and authorities are constantly under review and are submitted to Council for consideration as appropriate,” Downs wrote in a statement.

Oliver Morrison is a PublicSource reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

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Oliver reports on K-12 education for PublicSource. Before becoming a journalist, Oliver taught English and drama in the Arkansas Delta for seven years. He has previously written education features in New...