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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4 Responses to When it Comes to Air Quality, Better is Not Good

  1. Leah says:

    Well said Jody! As someone that lives less than 1000 yards downwind from Shenango I am fearful everyday of what this poison is doing to my 2 small children. This summer there were more days than I can count that they couldn’t play outside, they deserve better! If you can make it there is a community mtg on the 19th with ACHD, we’d love to have you tell your story there!

  2. Leah says:

    Yes! It’s actually in Ben Avon.
    Wednesday, November 19 6:00 p.m.
    Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon
    7501 Church Avenue
    Pittsburgh, PA 15202
    Here is a link to the flyer https://www.facebook.com/AghCoCAN/photos/a.326849117462313.1073741831.262598490554043/423244614489429/?l=2f2631dd38

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