It was a busy fall in the city. Without leaving town, many Pittsburghers – myself included – were able to participate in multiple international gatherings related to the environment and sustainability.
The first big event was the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) annual conference. Then came the greatly anticipated Climate Reality Leadership Corps training, with more than 1,300 trainees from around the world, led by founder and former Vice President Al Gore. October closed with the Natural History Museums in the Age of Humanity conference at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, coinciding with the opening of its We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene exhibit about life in the time of climate change.
By the end of these extraordinary gatherings, however, I kept wondering whether the truth about our region’s environment is getting lost. Why were our region’s very serious existing and potential environmental and health issues not being prominently acknowledged and recognized during these events?
Were conference-goers being greenwashed?
At the SEJ conference, sponsored by University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, attendees were welcomed by a large display emblazoned with the potentially misleading message, "How the ‘Smoky City’ became ‘America's Most Livable City.’" I studied a related thematic panel display about our region’s air. Of course, I thought it would have comparisons of Pittsburgh’s air quality past and present, maybe some data about toxic industrial pollution that plagues our region, perhaps a mention of the controversial Shell ethane cracker plant in Beaver? I doubted it would mention the 6,700 air pollution violations by U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works in three and a half years, but you never know. This was a conference of environmental journalists, after all.
But no, none of it was mentioned.
One point of redemption was an environmental justice panel on the conference’s opening night. The panel included Braddock Mayor John Fetterman who reminded us: “Your zip code determines your destiny,” while referring to his city as a “zone of sacrifice.” In addition, one of nine associated field tours – on the sidelines of the conference – focused on the cracker plant and fracking.
But given all the ongoing fossil fuel development and investment, it seems our entire region is becoming a zone of sacrifice. We need to acknowledge this reality in order to have any chance of transforming it.
The Climate Reality training featured speakers from near and far who discussed fracking, environmental justice and more, while Gore’s famous slideshow covered multiple topics. In the course of the trainings, I even learned that Pennsylvania’s Constitution guarantees its citizens clean air and pure water. But the most impactful and frightening presentation I attended was Fossil Fuel Development and Your Health, a breakout session two floors away from the main hall, featuring local pediatrician Dr. Ned Ketyer and Raina Rippel, director of Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. The session was packed. We filmed it, and I’m glad we did.
Both cancer survivors, Dr. Ketyer and Rippel painted a compelling and grim picture of the fossil fuel industry’s effects on human health. Their focus was Allegheny County and Southwestern Pennsylvania. Dr. Ketyer warned that the new Shell plant poses a “clear and present danger” that these are “threatening times.” He echoed Fetterman’s warning that your zip code is among the most important “social determinants of health.” Where did you grow up? Where do you live now? What toxic exposures have you and other family members experienced in the past and present?
Dr. Ketyer reiterated that the Pittsburgh region has some of the worst air quality in the country, the third worst air of all U.S. metro regions for two serious health hazards: fine particulate matter and smog. We have double the normal rate of childhood asthma, and significantly increased risks of other respiratory issues and cancers.
Rippel warned of the correlation between fracking and cancer, reminding us that the Shell plant will rely on natural gas and that the facility will “lock our region into exponentially increased fracking.” She also emphasized that the Shell plant’s purpose is to produce plastic. Tying it all together, Rippel said, “Ethane is the prize of Marcellus shale and also the feedstock for plastic.” She urged the audience to decrease plastic consumption, to help lower the demand for it. With recent reports that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the sea, there’s no good argument for producing more plastic. Many places now ban plastic bags and disposable plastic. Why would our region tie its future to producing more of what is being banned elsewhere?
I left the session depressed, angry and mystified. The mood in the main hall felt like a pep rally for Pittsburgh’s sustainability, with Mayor Bill Peduto heralding the city’s green initiatives and buildings, the city’s climate action plan, etc. All of this is true and worth celebrating. However, we cannot honestly nor ethically call our city sustainable when the mere act of living here is a health hazard.
In a mock town hall meeting, Mayor Peduto fielded questions to help prepare trainees for similar scenarios. One of my local eco-sheroes planetary scientist Maren Cooke spoke up:
Thank you for reminding your fellow policymakers, polluters and the world at large of the public health price that this region has already paid…[But] what can the city do to prevent the creation of a petrochemical hub in our region, which will blow our carbon goals out of the water and bring us to a new era of poisonous air — this time with [volatile organic compounds] instead of soot — cost billions of dollars in tax abatements for only 600 permanent jobs and drive people and businesses away?
The mayor’s response? Citizens can and should pressure Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, because the city has no control over the situation. As factual as that may be regarding the new Shell plant’s jurisdiction, many locals in the room deemed the response inadequate. I recently heard a city employee say Mayor Peduto can and should do more. Can’t the city sue the county?
Oddly enough, the first morning of the climate training was a Tuesday, the day my family has become accustomed to the stench of emissions from Clairton Works. Shut the doors and windows; keep the dog inside; turn on the air filters, as we grab our phones to file reports on the Smell PGH app. It is a strange and familiar routine.
Filmmaker and activist Mark Dixon is always the first to post about the emissions: “Stinkburgh Alert! Awful smell this morning.” A tireless advocate, he is even in the process of shooting a documentary film, Inversion: The Unfinished Business of Pittsburgh’s Air, and is co-founder of NoPetroPa, a grassroots organization dedicated to stopping fracking and the Shell plant. “No fracking, no cracking!” It’s a great slogan. But I fear these descriptions of our air — stinky, smelly — even the name of the app, can lull us into thinking the emissions aren’t as dangerous as they are. What if we called it as it is? Maybe PollutionPGH?
How can we feel good about living, working, playing, rearing kids, growing older in a place with air that substantially increases our risks for cancer and other ailments?
The city’s laudable climate goals of lowering greenhouse gases will be completely negated by the cracker plant’s emissions. And that’s just the first plant of its kind; more are in the works. As Dixon puts it, “Our region cannot support a petrochemical industry expansion if we expect to realize our climate goals.” Nor can we attract businesses and professionals savvy enough to sniff out the truth. Bakery Square’s Google building seems to have figured out one way around the dilemma. A key sales pitch is that its building has the best indoor air quality filtration in the city.
The third big event was the conference at Carnegie Museum featuring the opening keynote by Helmuth Trischler, director of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich. But before he spoke, County Executive Fitzgerald gave an official welcome. He said nothing about our environment, much less our region’s human-made pollution. I would have asked a question, but he quickly left after his opening remarks.
Carnegie Museum’s exhibit We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene is a thought-provoking, emotional look at humanity’s impact on Earth’s ecosystems. On display until September 2018, it’s a must–see. However, when I visited on opening day, the exhibit had no mention of our regional pollution, and inherent climate and health issues. When I asked about that, a museum educator acknowledged it was an oversight, sharing that they are collaborating with local artists and educators to create activities during the duration of the exhibit.
That’s a relief, because it can sometimes feel like we’re living in the Twilight Zone when all these terrific opportunities to shine light on our environmental issues and brainstorm solutions end up being downplayed or ignored altogether.
Ironically, there is a group that gathers occasionally for “Twilight Zone Lunches.” The name stems from the feelings of people who moved to Pittsburgh in part due to PR about this being the country’s Most Livable City only to realize after relocating that our air is among the nation’s worst. With mixed emotions, a few friends are considering leaving in search of a place with better air quality. My family is considering moving, too.
I’ve traveled to many U.S. cities these past two years with my latest film, Yemanja: Wisdom from the African Heart of Brazil. From L.A. to New York, Washington, D.C., to Montreal, Miami, Atlanta and Denver, people everywhere are talking about climate change, how the weather is different than in years and decades past. Innovative and inspiring solutions are emerging. But none of these other places is banking heavily on industry that will exacerbate environmental problems.
When people ask where I live, I tell them about Pittsburgh’s great cultural scene, its three rivers. Reluctantly, I share about our region’s existing air pollution, which many people don’t want to acknowledge.
My film’s narrator, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Alice Walker is often quoted as saying, "Activism is my rent for living on the planet." I agree, as do an increasing number of people in our region. When Walker was in Pittsburgh in 2016, she spoke of being constantly in awe of the beauty of the natural world, and how she can’t understand people who don’t feel obliged to care for the environment. Most people I know appreciate nature and truly value clean air and water (for themselves, their families, generations to come). But at the same time, most of us in the Pittsburgh region are downwind or around the bend from a seriously polluting industry, plant, well site, etc., putting our health and wellbeing at risk. We deserve better. Our region deserves better.
Unfortunately, we can’t always count on public officials and corporations to be transparent, so it’s up to us to be vigilant, to be critical consumers of information, to be aware of who’s funding research, news, even conferences. At the end of the day, we have to be willing to advocate for what we believe in, and remember that while green is the color of sustainability, it’s also the color of money. You can’t make something sustainable just by painting it green.
Donna Carole Roberts, M.S., is a Pittsburgh-based filmmaker and educator. She has a master’s degree in environmental sciences (and B.A. in Journalism), which she pursued because most of her production and broadcasting work and nonprofit service focused on environmental and health issues. She wanted to bring a deeper understanding to her passions and productions. Donna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.