Pittsburgh has committed to investing billions of dollars in the coming decade to clean up its rivers and address persistent air quality challenges and increasingly heavy rains due to climate change. The next mayor of Pittsburgh could play an outsized role in determining how these problems are tackled, especially if Congress passes a new $2 trillion infrastructure package.
To help our readers understand where exactly the mayoral candidates stand on issues affecting the environment, our lead environment and health reporter, Oliver Morrison, parsed through their answers from individual interviews to help readers see what their real differences are and what kind of policies they may pursue as mayor.
You can read their answers or listen to the interviews in full, here or listen to a radio version of the piece produced with The Allegheny Front below.
Mayor Bill Peduto
Peduto enjoys the advantages and disadvantages of incumbency. He has worked on the city’s environmental issues for more than two decades — first as a city council member and then for his two terms as mayor during which he has been even more intimately involved in implementation.
Peduto also has an eight-year record to defend, some of which is controversial or incomplete. But he said he has a longer and more consistent record of supporting the environment than his opponents.
In his first term, Peduto’s work to improve the bike infrastructure in the city was celebrated by advocates and criticized by those who felt he didn’t engage the community enough. In this interview, Peduto emphasized that he would follow the lead of neighborhood advocates over what bike lanes or outdoor dining changes would outlast the pandemic.
After speaking out against former President Donald Trump’s climate policies in 2017, Peduto released a bold vision of the city’s future in a new Climate Action Plan. The city has begun to electrify its vehicle fleet, reduce the energy use of its buildings and buy more renewable energy.
Even in many areas that were once weaker — the city’s lack of investment in green energy projects, for example — the city is now working on power agreements that will help spark the local industry. Joe Biden’s climate proposals often mirror ones Pittsburgh has already undertaken —this week pledging to emissions 50% by 2030, which Pittsburgh did in 2017. And on Earth Day, Peduto took it a step further, pushing for a 100% cut by 2050.
While the goals are ambitious, the city hasn’t reported on the city’s total greenhouse gas emissions since its estimate for 2013. That was before eight years of Peduto policies, so it’s hard to say how effective the work has been overall.
The city has begun adjusting its infrastructure plans in response to years of record rainfall, and Peduto is eyeing a partnership with PWSA to ramp up the city’s green infrastructure to help address it. “And we have to make that a component of not only our green infrastructure, but our park systems,” he said. “So when we look at abandoned properties and empty lots and vacant buildings, we not only look at the opportunity for housing...”
Peduto has made contradictory statements about the efficacy of taking on environmental problems outside the city limits. When it comes to the region’s air quality, Peduto is quick to point out the limits of his office and the dangers of making needless enemies. Other candidates promised to be more vocal about bad air quality.
And yet, Peduto took one of his boldest stances in 2019 when he publicly opposed additional cracker plants outside Pittsburgh. He has since proposed an alternative economic vision for the region, which includes banding together with Midwestern communities to innovate. The Marshall Plan for Middle America is more specific than other candidates’ calls for green jobs.
Peduto said PWSA’s infrastructure improvements are necessary and, unlike the others, admitted the hard truth that no one has found a plausible way to pay for upgrades other than rate hikes. PWSA has been trying to lessen the burden on its most vulnerable customers, he argued, though he didn’t mention how the agency has yet to get many low-income customers to sign up for financial assistance. And with lead levels finally under control, he emphasized the last couple years of progress, rather than the years of crisis that preceded it.
After months of Black Lives Matter protests, environmentalists might focus on candidates that prioritize environmental justice. During his interview with PublicSource, Peduto said he supported the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s parks tax plan — one of the region’s major efforts to prioritize equity.
State Rep. Ed Gainey
Gainey said he’ll be the candidate most focused on environmental justice. As a state representative for eight years, he serves a majority Black district. Being raised by a single mom, he said he has insight into the difficulties people have becoming engaged in environmental issues. He said he would prioritize providing education about environmental matters to low-income and Black Pittsburghers.
“A lot of times in the environmental community what gets left behind is some of the vulnerable communities that really are not going to go to meetings just because they're working two or three jobs or taking care of their kids,” he said.
His answers sometimes lacked specificity, often deferring on giving a full answer until after he knew more or took office. He had few areas of disagreement with the Peduto administration. He reemphasized his support for passing an ordinance that would help prevent lead poisoning, especially from construction demolition. That issue has already been taken up by the city council, and Gainey didn’t offer specifics about what kind of plan to remove lead he would support. He said he would build a team of experts to select his priorities on environmental investments rather than saying what they would be.
One of the few areas Gainey differed from Peduto is on handling the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA], which has a board nominated by the mayor. Gainey opposes raising rates because of the impact it would have on the city’s most vulnerable residents. But he still wants to find a way to pay for PWSA’s big projects, such as replacing the city’s lead service lines. He said the city should consider other funding sources, such as municipal bonds.
But that’s already part of PWSA’s plans and eventually those bonds would have to be paid for with future rate increases if there isn’t support from Harrisburg or Washington. Gainey said he could propose more specific solutions to PWSA after he’s in office, but, to environmentalists, it could appear like he’s unwilling to make politically difficult choices.
Peduto and Thompson have tried to portray Gainey as out of step on fracking and cracker plants after Gainey failed to show up twice to vote against natural gas bills opposed by environmentalists. He ended up voting for a bill to give petrochemical companies a tax break, after voting for an amendment that would strengthen the bill’s environmental protections. But he has voted with environmental groups 98% of the time, according to the latest environmental scorecard and has promised not to support fracking in Pittsburgh or Allegheny County.
Gainey said polling indicated that his campaign would be better served by highlighting issues around the economy, public safety and housing, before the environment. “That’s just smart,” he said. When PublicSource interviewed him, he didn’t have any environmental priorities listed on his website. He has since added five priorities but none that differ markedly from what the Peduto administration is doing.
When asked what he would do about air quality problems outside the city, he said the City of Pittsburgh should measure it and report on progress.
Moreno, a political newcomer who has been campaigning for more than a year, offers the most distinct and contrarian policy ideas. For example, he is the only candidate who gave a full-throated defense of fossil fuels and the only candidate who pledged to reverse the parks tax.
Instead of emphasizing the need to transition away from natural gas now, Moreno said he believes the industry will be around indefinitely. In fact, the city should be transitioning to natural gas vehicles rather than electric vehicles, he said. Moreno said he would use fracking technology to help clean up the city’s rivers.
Moreno said air pollution levels are the same all across the city, even though pollution monitors show that air pollution varies widely. This factual mistake shapes his policy position. Because he believes that air pollution is the same everywhere, he assumes the answer to the region’s asthma disparities is more health care rather than less air pollution. “When you see some other neighborhoods get affected worse, it's not because the pollution over that specific neighborhood is worse, it's because they don't get the care that they should.”
He also said falsely that the Earth’s temperature has fluctuated by 19 degrees over the past 100,000 years. The reality is those temperature fluctuations were much smaller, and the size of recent temperature changes proportionally much larger. “That’s devastating,” he said about past climate events, which included the ice ages. “But we survived.”
He also believes there has been corruption in local government. He suggested that the city has been deliberately letting its parks deteriorate so that it could pass an additional parks tax. He said he thinks that PWSA is hiding money from the public in a “slush fund.”
Moreno emphasizes putting Pittsburgh first and was the only candidate of the four to bring up China — to cast doubt on our ability to mitigate climate change. Moreno doesn’t deny climate science full stop but is skeptical of mainstream ideas for how to address it. For instance, he said an overabundance of renewable energy contributed to California’s blackouts.
His ideas could have resonance with voters of another political outsider, Donald Trump. But when asked whether Trump was a political role model of his, Moreno emphasized that he sees himself as politically independent. He says he gets criticized by conservative friends for having a gay chaplain and by liberal friends for opposing bike infastructure.
“I'm not against bike lanes. Are you out of your mind? Bike lanes save lives,” he said. “It's just, I don't want to destroy business.”
As a political newcomer, Thompson embraces the role of truth teller and explicitly says he wouldn’t be running if the environment were the only issue. He praised Peduto several times in response to questions about climate change and the petrochemical industry. “I can’t lie,” he said. He also supports big investments in green infrastructure to prepare for increased rainfall from climate change.
At one point, he hinted that he considered his candidacy might be best viewed as the beginning of a longer term bid, either for himself or another more boldly progressive candidate.
Ideological purity, he said, is both the reason to vote for him and the reason he might not be familiar to many voters. He refuses to compromise with special interests and says he’ll put local Democrats on blast if they don’t speak out against industry. He’s self-funding his campaign with his Uber driver income.
Thompson’s long-term plan to get things done, without compromise or backroom deals, is to help progressives win more local elections. He sees himself as part of a larger movement to wrest control from a morally compromised political class.
In the meantime, he offers voters an alternative to Peduto on issues like affordable housing, policing and term limits, he said. “The people who want a strong record as a mayor who has worked on the environment, I'm just assuming they're voting on Peduto,” he said.
If elected twice, Thompson said he would not seek a third term. “No one should be in office for more than eight years,” he said.
Correction 11/26/2021: A previous version of this article didn’t mention a vote Gainey took on a petrochemical tax break.
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.