When it Comes to Air Quality, Better is Not Good

Nov 3 UPDATE: Read the article in the Post-Gazette here: Western Pennsylvania native helped spur council conversation on air quality


In the last year, I’ve gotten more involved with working toward better air quality in Pittsburgh. Today, I joined Councilman Corey O’Connor at a post agenda specifically for this issue, one that affects every Pittsburgher. Here are the remarks I gave.

I’d like to thank Councilman O’Connor for calling this post agenda, and all of you for attending. I also want to thank the presenters who are providing us with so much context. I’m Jody Handley, and speaking as a private citizen because behind every number and statistic there’s a family like mine.

A bit about me: I grew up in Greene County. My dad went to Sto Rox High School, and my mom grew up on Corey Avenue in Braddock, the granddaughter of an Italian immigrant employed at Edgar Thompson Works. As a child, when she arrived at Braddock Elementary, she and her classmates washed the soot off their faces when they arrived at school. As a child, and when I worked at Kennywood for two summers, I didn’t question the summer sulfur smell—it was just the way cities smelled.

After graduating high school, I lived in New York City for three years, and then San Francisco for nearly 12 years. In early 2012, when our second daughter was about to turn one, my husband and I decided we’d had enough of paying out the ears for a one-bedroom apartment and flying back home twice a year to visit our families. Given the choice between several East Coast-cities: Baltimore, Washington DC, Pittsburgh—we knew Pittsburgh was the right choice. Aside from my personal history there, it has beautiful, affordable homes, a gorgeous landscape, culture and nightlife, and a growing software industry, which is my profession.

We knew we’d have to contend with losing our walkability, not to mention winter. What I didn’t know was that a week after moving in, I woke up in the middle of the night to a horrible sewage smell in our rental house on Shady Avenue; I called the landlord the next morning, but by then the smell had dissipated. It turns out the smell wasn’t coming from inside the house.

We still bought a house in Squirrel Hill South, on Landview near Minadeo. We love our yard, our house, our neighbors, but what we don’t love is the smell. During our first full summer, on cooler nights, when we’d leave the windows open for fresh air, I’d routinely wake up at 2:30 AM—always 2:30!—to close every window in the house.

After I got a new prescription for an Albuterol inhaler—something I hadn’t needed since high school—I looked deeper into the issue, and began reporting the bad air on the ACHD’s website. I reported frequently enough that someone actually called me. The problem, it turned out, was the weather… and the Clairton Coke Works. The river causes an inversion due to cooling night air, the wind blows it just right, and it settles right in Squirrel Hill, Homestead, Greenfield and Hazelwood.

It may go without saying, but the bad air is not the weather’s fault. It’s not my fault, either, or my neighbors’. When I get my 2:30 wakeup call, it’s not because the neighbors are burning wood, or using inefficient lawnmowers. It’s not rush hour at 2:30 in the morning. The only thing awake at 2:30 in the morning is US Steel. The coke works generates the bad air, and we all get to enjoy it—twelve miles away. Good god, I thought—if it’s this bad here, what’s it like in Clairton?

I got in touch with Jennifer Bails at the Breathe Project on Facebook, and it turns out she lived around the corner from me. Last spring, I attended a public hearing with the ACHD in Clairton, and it was just as I thought: US Steel is great at putting in playgrounds, but who would want to play in them?

When I ask my friends and neighbors about their experience with the bad air, and invariably got one of two responses. One: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” They literally can’t smell it. Just this Monday I had another 2:30 AM wakeup—this time with all the windows closed—and the moment we stepped outside to walk to school that morning, my older daughter said, “Ew, Mommy, it stinks today.” My five-year-old smells it, but people who have lived here for long enough? They just don’t even notice it. Or if they do, they think it’s just the way a city smells.

Second: “Well, I remember when it was actually bad.” I remember not being able to open my windows for all the soot, shaking soot off my laundry, seeing the black clouds of smog roiling over the hill, all infused with a sense of pride in Pittsburgh’s romantic blue-collar roots. This is usually followed up by a defensive posture of Pittsburgh: we’re getting so much better, the air pollution’s not from Pittsburgh, but from Clairton or New Castle—all with the underlying message that it’s better than it used to be, and if we hang our dirty underwear out on the line, no one will come visit us.

That is madness. I love Pittsburgh. I love living here, and I love seeing the physical and cultural changes it’s undergone since my childhood. I love that Braddock is coming back from the edge of ruin. I love that STEM companies have become a major industry here, and that so many of the young people who come here for college are staying. It’s why I wanted to come back.

But we have a long way to go, and if we’re not willing to acknowledge the problem, we’re never going to change anything. Clairton will keep getting new empty playgrounds, Shenango will continue getting slapped on the wrist, and our air will keep smelling like an outhouse.

Better is not good. It’s not even just not good enough—where we are right now, it is not good. I’ve read articles quoting that we’re no longer hell with the lid off, and I heard a caller on the radio tout that we’re better than Beijing! This is our basis for comparison: Beijing and Hell! We’re better than Hell. That’s an awfully low bar. And we can, and should, expect more from ourselves. And it sounds like we do. In press, we compare ourselves to Austin and Portland and even San Francisco. But in the next short breath we’re favorably comparing ourselves to Beijing and Hell.

So why am I talking to all of you? What can you do about it? I know that the city of Pittsburgh is not Allegheny County, but it is a pretty big part of it. I’m asking you to start talking about this. Just this conversation we’re having now is a great step. So many people seem afraid to say anything bad about the steel industry, because to denigrate the steel industry is to denigrate the Steelers, and Pittsburgh’s rich history. I also love the romance of it—my great-grandfather was a mill foreman at Edgar Thompson, and my grandfather captained a tugboat on the Mon. I hear the trains go through Homestead, and watch the barges pass from my yard. It’s part of me, too. I love how Pittsburgh is growing in new directions.

We’re on our way, but we haven’t arrived. And I believe the thing that’s standing in our way is air quality. You, City Council, can enforce our existing Clean Air standards. You can help us build a city infrastructure so that we don’t have so many cars on the road—speaking as someone from the East End, I would love a train downtown—and we can end smoking in bars. That’s at least two things to start giving private citizens better choices controlling air quality.

But that doesn’t hold Clairton, and Shenango, and Edgar Thompson accountable. They are the root of the problem. They are why, some days, I don’t want my daughters playing outside in the yard. They are why it’s healthier for my girls to sit inside an air-conditioned home with the windows closed, watching TV, than it is to play Frisbee.

I do get a third response from people when I talk to them about air quality, and joke about how I’m going to become known as Crazy Stink lady. I tell them how they should register complaints on the ACHD, write emails to you folks, and Mayor Peduto, and their state legislators. The response I get back? “Good luck with that.” I think part of that comes from a perception that you don’t read your emails and don’t care what anyone has to say. I’ve found firsthand that’s not true, so thank you! But the real root of that message is that you can’t fight the industries. They have too much money, they’re too powerful, and the politicians are beholden to them. That is the most discouraging message in all of this: that I shouldn’t even bother trying, because when I moved here three years ago, I gave up control of my family’s respiratory health and signed it over to US Steel.

[Note: I’m embarrassed to say at this point, I got so choked up I couldn’t continue. So you can all enjoy my final, unsaid paragraph.]

I’m asking you to help us take that control back. We have to convince Pittsburghers that this IS a problem; that it’s worth fixing; and that we have to help fix it. Only then can we get the message to the people who can hold Clairton and Shenango accountable. Help Pittsburgh get mad! Help us take control of our own health. Help us aim higher than just better. Because better is not good.

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A Tree Lends a Hand… Branch?

Back in the 80s, Eat’n’Park, a local franchise akin to Denny’s, began airing this commercial. The holiday season is not official without the airing of this commercial during the Macy’s Parade, and thanks to YouTube, everyone can enjoy it, even if they no longer live in southwestern Pennsylvania.

I get goosebumps every time. And sometimes tears.

Have a wonderful holiday, fair readers!

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LowesHack: A Pretty Spinning Windmill

In early summer, I was obsessed with finding a pinwheel for the yard. Not a flimsy paper pinwheel, but a nice, sturdy steel one–but not one that looked overly old-timey country. Our aesthetic, after all, is more Mad Men than Little House. I drove myself crazy until I found the Kinetic Steel Wind Spinner at Lowe’s for $40, the result of a happenstance glance to the right when I usually would’ve glanced left. (The one in that link isn’t quite the same as ours, but I couldn’t find an exact match.)

It was just what I wanted: six feet tall, two spinning wheels, and a spinning pole that would allow the pinwheel to rotate as well as spin. Groovy! Only problem: it was all black matte steel, and virtually invisible against our wooded hillside.

Fortunately, I’d just been spray painting all of our patio furniture, and had a brainwave: I could paint the interior white, and the exterior glossy red, for a nice double-colored effect when the wind blows. It came out perfectly: a barber-shop-like spinning flower in our backyard, placed in full view of our living room. Our neighbor liked it so much, she went and bought her own, painted it blue and white, and put it just across the fence. (It’s barely visible in the video below.)

The best part? Now that the leaves have fallen and landscape has gone the brown of Pittsburgh winter, we can enjoy a wildly spinning riot of red and white flashing against the landscape every time the November wind gusts up from the river. And I can’t wait to see how it looks in a full snow.

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Prototyping the Kitchen, Part II

A few weeks ago, we cut a hole in the wall. We do that a lot. Last time we did it, it was to reopen a hole in our front hall–one that was in the original house. I’ll post about that some day. Then, of course, we cut a giant hole in our living room. And there was the time we cut about six inches from the dividing wall to our bar area, known as Kitchen Island, Prototype #1.

Usually it goes like this:

“So I was thinking… maybe we could cut the hole in the wall today.”

Then I call my dad, and say, “Dad, we’re going to cut a hole in the wall today.”

And then he brings power tools and old clothes, and my mom and I take the kids to a craft store, and my husband and dad make everything very, very dusty.

And we go from this:

Note how the recessed lighting actually bounces off the whole thing and makes it glow. Glow, I tell you!

To this:

Tarps are important when drywall's involved.

To this.

No, it's not load-bearing. They checked.

That was a few weeks ago. We’ve been making some trips to IKEA in the meantime, spec’ing out cabinets for underneath the island, talking about configurations. But I’m someone who actually has to see a design to understand it, so this weekend, with the help of a few wood planks, clamps, and tablecloths, we came up with a reasonable facsimile of what our new semi-wraparound island will look like.

It'll be shorter from wall to end, but wider. The shelf will be lit from underneath, and hide unattractive things like the iphone charger and butter dish.

Of course, the IKEA cabinets that will best match our gray steel cabinetry is the Akurum Abstrakt line in glossy white, which, for IKEA, is expensive. For anywhere else, I think it’s about right. Plus, with a butcher block top, David can cut out the compost hole (I love a compost hole, and ours uses a steam table container, set right into the countertop), and we can get a pull-out trash drawer.

Of course, we’ll have to cut the remainder of the dividing wall out, which will involve some rewiring and minor ductwork. They’ve promised me it’s easy. I hope so, because what we really want is to have a line of outlets on TOP of the counter, conference-room-style.

The opposite side is a different story. The cabinets will be part of the living area decor, so glossy white will look far too sterile. I’m hoping we can either get an accent door from IKEA in lime green or turquoise, to match the colors in our mural, or even get unpainted cabinets and go crazy with it ourselves–preferably with high-gloss, as well, to repeat the steel cabinetry look.

Look at that hole in the wall!

Ideally, the butcher block top would extend out past the hole into the dining area, which would allow room for a fourth barstool (we’d fit three along the side) and really complete the flow of the kitchen as the heart of the house. Of course, that means we’d be cutting out THAT wall, too, and also moving the HVAC.

And we’d like to have the bulk of it done by Thanksgiving, when we’ll be hosting my sister and her family. I think we’re gonna need some more dropcloths.

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DIY, Meet PIY.

Sometimes, you don’t want to do it yourself. And when it came to installing a second twelve-foot sliding glass door in our living room, we went with PIY, instead of DIY.

Here's the backyard before we moved in. Note the lack of toys, and also the lack of toys.

Our two main reasons were:

  1. Cutting a large hole in your house is inconvenient, and we wanted it done quickly.
  2. Cutting a large hole in your house is risky, and we wanted it done correctly.

My dad, of course, insists he could’ve done it, despite being in his late 60s. I’m sure he’d have done a reasonably good job, and for a lot cheaper than what we spent, but it would’ve taken six weeks and we would’ve had no legal recourse if, say, he totally bolloxed the job. So we went through all the steps of hiring a contractor: called around, had a few appointments, collected bids.

The Wall.

A few things: some contractors just don’t call back. I don’t know if it’s because the job was too small, or they weren’t interested, or were too busy, but being in the client service industry myself, I was surprised by how many people just didn’t bother with us. Of the three who provided bids, the first was an efficient man with a family business who talked fast and provided us the lowest bid. He also called back for updates a few times, corrected his bid when we asked for it, and kept in close contact.

Then some guy cut a hole in it.



The second bidder was a proper Irish gent, six feet tall, handsome in a gray-haired, fisherman’s sweater kind of way, and wore a proper tweed cap. To be honest, we were both rooting for him: David because he liked the cap and me because I wouldn’t have minded hearing the accent around the house for a week. But his bid was the highest.

The third contractor was nice, and very thorough–took pictures, more notes than the other two combined. He was also, in David’s words, “an uncontrollable farter.” I left the room to answer a phone call, and the moment I was out, apparently he lost control of his sphincter and peppered conversation with, “Oh, excuse me. Sorry about that. Excuse me.”

And then they made the hole REALLY big.



After wiping the tears of  hysterical laughter from my eyes, we agreed he probably wouldn’t work out. And he neglected to call back with a bid, anyway, so we went with Ricciuti Construction, the first bidder.

All in all, we were very pleased with the work they did. They had a crew of three men–they did demolition and installed the door all in one day, and thankfully, the weather cooperated. The next two days were detail work: trimming the door, building a step, wiring up light fixtures and a new outdoor outlet.

Thar be windows in that wall!

Of course, any time you’re paying a lot of money and doing something drastic, there’s an undercurrent of anxiety: what if I really, really hate it? But we don’t. We love it. The heretofore unused corner of our patio has immediately moved into an extension of our living room. We’re planning how to beautify that side of the yard because it’s now a part of our view. And the sunshine in our living room has quadrupled, literally overnight.



We can’t wait until winter, when we’ll really be able to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labor: the sun rises on that side of the house, so our living room will become a truly cozy sunroom.

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