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Fighting Air Pollution With Stories and Friendship

Miriam Maletta opens her hair salon in Clairton, southeast of Pittsburgh, at 11 a.m. on Thursdays. Amid boxes piled boxes piled up on padded chairs, and her Yorkie, Neyno, who dances in little circles on the linoleum floor, Maletta says her salon is finally getting a facelift. She’s been in business for 34 years and she has lived in Clairton all of her life. That’s evident as a cousin or a nephew stops by the shop to drop off Christmas donations for a local family she’s helping, or just to check in.

“It’s just a hometown. It’s just family,” Maletta says. “We care about each other.”

LISTEN: “Fighting Air Pollution with Stories and Friendship”

Maletta is warm, and easy to talk to. She says of the things her customers talk about when they come to see her is U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, just down the hill, along the Monongahela River.

“We talk about how the community thrived when the mill was there,” Maletta says.

The steel mill here wound down its operations in the 1960s, and what was once a boomtown started its decline. Maletta says when she was young, and lived closer to the mill, the traffic near her house was like New York City, because so many people worked there. Now the streets are much less busy, and many businesses here are shuttered.

Miriam’s Beauty Salon. Credit: Google Maps

“I used to love the smell that used to resonate from the mill. I used to love that smell,” she laughs, remembering her childhood. “Now when I think about it, what was it doing to our health?”

Maletta says it was a chemical smell, not like the stench of rotten eggs that people sometimes report in Clairton now. That’s because U.S. Steel still makes coke here. In fact, the Clairton Coke Works is the largest coke plant in North America, and it has a long history of violations with the Allegheny County Health Department, which regulates it.

Maletta says living for decades with the air pollution the coke works creates has taken its toll on the community’s health, like her father’s illness and death. She says he was a professional boxer, and he worked in the mill.

“My dad never drank, never smoked,” she says. “He was so healthy, and one day he just had stage four gastric cancer. He was gone in four or five months.”

A brother had asthma, and Maletta says her mother had mysterious illnesses. Maletta herself is a cancer survivor. She was diagnosed in 2016 with Diffuse Large B-cell Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes in her abdomen and chest. She went through rounds of chemo and radiation, and lost her hair. According to a 2009 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, air pollution raised Clairton residents’ risk of getting cancer to about 20 times the national average. Most recent EPA data show the cancer rate from air toxins in the vicinity of the Clairton Coke Works is now about three times the national average.

Asthma, dirty air and the struggle to clean up a chronic polluter

Maletta’s in remission now, but after her own cancer, and hearing the stories about cancer and other illnesses from her customers, she wonders.

“It has been on my mind, like, what is going on? What’s really going on?” she says.

So a few months ago, when she met Dave Smith from Clean Air Council outside of her shop, and he asked if he could talk to her about her health, and her family, she said “sure.” Now she says, it feels like their meeting was meant to be.

Smith has been working in Clairton for about a year and a half, and one of the things he’s doing is visiting community hubs, and knocking on doors to talk with people about their losses, like lost jobs and family members lost to illness. He’s hoping to record and collect the stories of 100 residents for this Legacy of Our Losses program, and deliver them to the Allegheny County Health Department and Rich Fitzgerald, the county executive.

Smith and Maletta have struck up a friendship, and even what you might call a partnership. He’s done about twenty interviews at the back of Miriam’s salon alone.

“I think there’s a lot of repressed feelings and grief here about how they’ve been impacted by the plant,” Smith says.

He says he just listens, which is a skill he built years ago when he was a minister. But Miriam Maletta says even now, people in Clairton are reluctant to speak out against the industry. The mill employed their fathers and grandfathers, put food on their tables, and put them through college.

She says many people here also feel they don’t have a voice because of racism, and the way Clairton is sometimes perceived from the outside.

“This will be basically called the ghetto, and it’s just like nobody pays attention,” Maletta says.

She says people feel like they will not be heard, even if they do speak up. But Dave Smith says with Maletta’s help, and others in the community, there’s been some progress.

“It’s picking up steam, because more and more people are opening up and want to talk,” he says. “It empowers people when they tell their story, and they realize, you know, this is what I’ve been living [with] and why have I tolerated this?”

Smith says it opens people’s eyes to say it out loud.

Can a Town Prove That Its Health Problems Are Caused by Pollution?

In a few months, Smith will share these stories, and hundreds of health surveys he and Clean Air Council are also collecting. They want the Clairton Coke Works to clean up its act for good, and for the county to invest in clean energy jobs here. Miriam Maletta wants to see people in her community become healthier, and for Clairton to grow. She says that’s going to mean encouraging more people to stand up and tell their stories.

“I don’t want to be the one to sit back and say, ‘Oh, they should have done this.’ I want to be a part of something,” she says. “I feel like, with me being healed from cancer, I do have a purpose. And maybe this is one of my purposes, to kind of do something to help with this situation, this problem.”

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Top photo: Clairton business owner Miriam Maletta and Clean Air Council’s Dave Smith at Maletta’s hair salon, where Smith collects stories of people’s health problems and family losses to cancer and other illnesses. Photo: Kara Holsopple.