Prove your humanity

This story comes from our partner, 90.5 WESA.

Germaine Gooden-Patterson has an air purifier set up in her bedroom, but it can’t stop the smell of air pollution from seeping into her Clairton home.

“The smell is so strong that it wakes you out of your sleep at wee hours in the morning,” she said. “If you have your windows open, the windows need to be closed because — even with the windows closed — you can still smell it.”

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The issue of air quality in the Mon Valley — and the stench that often accompanies it — isn’t new. The region is home to U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, the United States’ largest coke manufacturing facility and the largest single source of particle pollution, hydrogen sulfide and benzene (a known human carcinogen) in Allegheny County.

Air pollution’s impact on community health

A study of more than 1,200 school-aged children living near the Clairton plant, U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock and other large sources of pollution in Allegheny County found asthma rates in those areas exceeded 22% — double the rate of asthma among children countywide.

Gooden-Patterson has been working with Clairton families affected by asthma and other issues related to air quality since 2019, when she was hired by Women For a Healthy Environment as a community health worker.

At homes around the region, Gooden-Patterson conducts “healthy home check-ups” to help families identify environmental toxins that may be impacting their health.

“After the healthy home checkup, we’re able to determine if we can provide resources for those families,” she explained. “For instance, a family with asthma can receive an air filter.”

But while they help, air filters are not a solution. Gooden-Patterson is among those calling on local elected officials to put money toward a variety of projects that would improve public health and increase public input.

Advocates say it can be done with money U.S. Steel has already placed in politicians’ hands: As a result of air quality violations, the company has put more than $5 million into a trust benefiting communities adjacent to the plant.

The direction of the fund, however, is a source of contention among many residents, including Gooden-Patterson. While the trust’s existence stems from the presence of industry-related air pollution in the region, relatively few of the dollars disbursed so far have gone toward mitigating pollution and related efforts.

“It’s almost like they don’t want to acknowledge that there is a problem with the environment, [that] there is a problem with pollution, when that’s why the funds were created,” she said.

A fund to benefit the “Adjacent Communities”

The U.S. Steel Community Benefit Trust is the result of the company’s June 2019 settlement with the Allegheny County Department of Health over air pollution violations at Clairton Coke Works.

As part of the agreement, U.S. Steel was required to put 90% of a $2.7 million civil penalty levied by ACHD for air quality permit violations toward establishing a trust to support municipalities nearest to the plant. (The remaining 10% went to the county’s Clean Air Fund.)

Future penalties, the settlement agreement outlined, would be paid to the fund as well. As of March 31, 2023, the trust had received a combined $5.2 million in payments from U.S. Steel, according to an account summary obtained by WESA.

A board then distributes the money to projects in five municipalities: Clairton, Glassport, Liberty, Lincoln and Port Vue. Together, they represent more than 16,200 people living in the Mon Valley. (Although, according to the settlement, additional communities may be added to that list if agreed upon by U.S. Steel and ACHD).

Projects must benefit ‘environmental and/or public health’

A subsequent agreement dictating the terms of the trust stipulated that all distributions must benefit at least one of the five communities or the local environment — though not necessarily at the same time.

Projects receiving trust funds “need not be air-quality related, as long as an environmental and/or public health benefit can be recognized,” the document states.

With that flexibility, local governments have used the funds to complete long-stalled renovations, update equipment and provide the local match needed to access some state and federal grants.

At a meeting last week, the fund’s board approved the Borough of Glassport’s application for $51,447 to purchase a new vehicle for the Department of Public Works. (Glassport council president Anthony Colecchi said while they were not able to secure a hybrid vehicle for this purpose, they’re choosing an unleaded gas-powered one over diesel.)

“We’re trying to do the best job we can, for the size that we are, with the limited amount of money we have,” Tammy Firda, president of the trust’s board, told WESA.

Where the money has gone so far: snowplows, street lights and ballfields

Of the $3.4 million the fund has disbursed so far, 40% has gone to projects involving recreational facilities and programs, like rehabilitating parks, renovating ball fields and purchasing new equipment for maintenance crews.

Another 25% has been dedicated to public safety programs, including multiple purchases of hybrid police vehicles, body and surveillance cameras, as well as new fire department equipment.

Among the largest expenditures across all categories:

  • $404,500 for capital improvements at the Borough of Port Vue’s new recreation center
  • $250,000 for the City of Clairton to purchase combination solar-powered, WiFi-capable cameras and street lights
  • $200,000 for outdoor improvements at Clairton’s old PNC Bank, which the city purchased in 2021 and plans to transform into a recreation center
  • $200,000 to rehabilitate several of Lincoln’s parks
  • $170,161 for Liberty to renovate the bathrooms at the Manor ballfields and purchase a new utility vehicle and snowplow attachment

Public health and environmental projects: hybrid police cars and a salt shed

Public health and environmental programs, meanwhile, have been allotted just under 7% of all funding. The three allocations that explicitly name this purpose include $130,000 to Port Vue for “environmental, public health and community benefit” and $51,668 for the purchase of “public health and safety education” equipment in Lincoln, as well as $50,000 for the borough to construct a new salt shed that meets environmental standards.

“All that salt was constantly leaching into the ground because it wore away the pad that was under it … And our shed sits on the back end of an area that runs down to a stream,” said Firda, who is also a member of Lincoln’s borough council. “By putting that new shed in, it stopped all that salt from transferring into the ground and down into our stream waters. Environmentally, I think that does make an impact.”

Firda says the same goes for the hybrid police cars that the fund allocated more than $300,000 for law enforcement in Lincoln and Port Vue to purchase.

Reverend Michael Airgood, who serves two congregations in Clairton and Glassport, said while he supports that some of the uses, he’s hesitant to encourage funding for recreational projects that would bring people outdoors.

His church hires local teens as interns over the summer to lead different projects throughout the community, like cleaning up yards.

“And you’re outside with the teenagers and you think, are we hurting them? Is the air quality so bad that it’s bad for them to be outside on a day like this?” Airgood said. “That’s a scary thought when you aren’t sure if you want to encourage kids to be outside more because the air quality is that bad.”

Airgood is among several community members showing up to the Community Benefit Trust’s board meetings. He said he’s seen how leaders have repeatedly funded projects that already exist in the region, rather than put money toward transformative change.

“We’re just not thinking in those creative kinds of terms,” Airgood said. “We’re looking at what we are doing already, and [whether] any of that be justified for a grant from this trust.”

‘I don’t know if people even know it’s public’ 

Airgood said he wants to see the trust put money in the hands of others willing to do that kind of innovative work — or, at the very least, seek more public input as part of the allocation process.

“We have nonprofits that are active and working in this community that have the capacity to handle the infrastructure if the funding was there,” he added.

The trust agreement notes that the five communities adjacent to Clairton Coke Works are responsible for determining which projects will be presented. Each one must submit its proposals at least 30 days in advance of the board’s quarterly meetings.

Firda said residents can submit an application for funding to their local representatives at their respective council meetings.

“But I can honestly say, I’ve been an elected official in this community for 24 years, and I would say probably — in the past 10 to 15 years — I am lucky to get one person in attendance at that [council] meeting,” she continued.

At last week’s meeting of the trust’s board in Liberty, Jackie Wade was one of a handful of community members present. No one spoke for public comment; the meeting was adjourned after 10 minutes.

But Wade, who has lived in Clairton for the last 50 years said the low attendance isn’t due to a lack of interest. She attends each trust board meeting to take notes to share with her neighbors, who she said haven’t been brought into the process.

“I don’t know if people even know it’s public to them,” Wade said.

None of the five municipalities’ websites, after all, explicitly spell out the public proposal process Firda described. While all of them link to documents related to the trust, most of the account summaries and meeting agendas shared are outdated.

“We just started coming because the community was not even aware there was a community trust fund. And then our interest was, who are the people who are making decisions?” Wade said. “And we found out it actually wasn’t the community.”

The agreement dictates that municipalities choose their board representative, as well as an alternate, in whatever means they like, and doesn’t limit membership to elected officials. That said, all of the board’s current members are elected council members and mayors with the exception of Glassport borough manager Elaine Skiba (she was previously the town’s council president).

At the board’s February meeting, Firda told attendees that all trust fund representatives were appointed to their board seats.

And while — when the populations of all five impacted municipalities are considered together — nearly one in five residents are Black, none of the board’s current members are people of color.

“I think the right thing to do would be to say, ‘Okay, let’s dismantle this board,’” said Gooden-Patterson, the community health worker. “Let’s bring on actual community members. Not everybody needs to be in power here. Not everybody who is in power needs to be making the decisions as to where these funds should belong.”

The next board meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in Glassport on Aug. 24.