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Will the City of Pittsburgh revoke its parks tax? Spend more on green infrastructure to confront flooding and climate change? And should the mayor of Pittsburgh take a stand on issues that go beyond city limits, like fracking and green energy?

Although the mayoral debates focused mainly on issues like affordable housing and policing, the four Democratic candidates offer sharply different records and plans for the city’s environmental future. PublicSource’s Oliver Morrison asked how the candidates would address the many environmental challenges that one would face as mayor. 

He asked the same questions to contrast their ideas and then edited down the answers to highlight their most substantial proposals and biggest areas of disagreement.

You can also listen to their full interviews at the end of this article, or read a deeper analysis at PublicSource

LISTEN to Oliver Morrison’s analysis of each candidate on the major issues

What are the most important policies or actions you would take to promote environmental progress as mayor?

The main thing I would like to focus on is water quality. Think of it this way: We eat local food. Delicious. Do we eat local fish? We don’t. Our water is a mess. We have three rivers, and none of them are clean enough. Every time it rains, tons of sewage flows into our river. Now Cleveland had the same problem, and they fixed it with infrastructure. It may take 30 years, but we need a program to fix our infrastructure. And when it rains, the sewage shouldn’t flow into our rivers. You have to ask, why can’t we swim in our rivers? We need a city, county and regional water [authority] spearheaded by the mayor to clean up our rivers.
Two of the biggest areas are our water and our air. We’ve taken proactive steps in order to be able to provide safe drinking water and have been able to keep the asset public at the same time. And we have been able to remove the lead from our system to where our water is the purest it’s been in 30 years. We need to be able to understand that environmental degradation is exceedingly happening in the city through historic rain events that are causing landslides and flooding. And creating green solutions to those types of problems not only affect the well-being of communities, but individuals themselves.
No. 1 is environmental justice. 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. I’m an asthmatic, and I didn’t know the terminologies growing up in regards to clean air. I just knew I had asthma. I come from a single mom. We didn’t come up in an environmental community where we understood the terminology. We just understood I had asthma and at nights I couldn’t breathe.
River cleanup is a big issue. We don’t clean our streets appropriately. We don’t clean our rivers. We don’t clean what we have first. And we’re trying to tackle other things that are very far reaching. So focusing on the things that we can have a direct impact first is what I’m going to target and then start making policies that reach out towards the water cleanliness. Every other week recycling gets picked up. But recycling still goes out weekly. When you have cardboard that goes into our regular garbage trucks, it takes up 25% of the truck.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the city’s current climate action plan?

We see on Route 51, the falling of the rocks, the water’s coming through, the continual flooding. We already see the floods that happen on Washington Boulevard. And because I live three minutes [from there] by car, I understand that climate change is real, and I understand it has a tremendous impact. When we talk about ALCOSAN and the raw sewage and being able to deal with green pipes underneath our rivers, it’s problematic. I think that that has to be intergovernmental relations to really talk about how we get it done and how we move to more green infrastructure in that deal.
Honestly, I like what Bill Peduto has done on climate. If it was a 100% election on climate change only, I would be a Bill Peduto voter, and I wouldn’t be running. And I would more or less just continue his policies. The people in place in the City of Pittsburgh on climate change, I think it’s a fine team. I think we’re in the right direction. I’m kind of proud where Pittsburgh is. I’m not good at lying.
It doesn’t address facts, the actual science, numbers. We’re decreasing our carbon emissions greatly because of our natural gas input. We’ve also raised our air quality here in the city, in our general area. We also don’t act forward enough to get vehicles, our fleet vehicles running on natural gas, which is available right now. We’re going forward with an electric vehicle fleet that doesn’t necessarily have a proven record.
They align with our 2030 plan for our ability to get to 100% renewable, 0% waste and a 50% reduction in energy and water use. And the alignment also continues on to being able to meet our Paris goals and also our goals on net zero. Where they can be strengthened is more within our built environment and looking at the opportunities to increase our urban canopy by 100,000 trees, our ability to increase the number of parks so that they’re within a 10-minute walk, and to be able to align also our plans with PWSA in providing a green infrastructure plan to minimize combined sewer overflow.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal, which he recently announced in Pittsburgh, includes hundreds of billions of dollars aimed at supporting an energy transition to address climate change. How would you use the money?

What we should do is actually provide the incentives through this act in order to build out entirely new industries around meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. The Marshall Plan for Middle America is a regional approach between four states — West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky — eight mayors and numerous environmental and labor organizations. I think that we could help lead the discussion this summer on what that stimulus package will look like in order to be able to grow our green economy and clean technology.
We know for sure natural gas reduces the carbon, and we should go towards that more while we’re still developing wind and solar. As far as the city goes, we can solar panel a lot of the areas that we have. I would invest in that 100%. We got three rivers here that we should be using on a regular basis. We do have areas that we have a lot of wind. We’re in this valley that that gives that to us. I don’t think we use it appropriately.
We have to have real resiliency to the heat and resiliency to excess water. So some of our buildings that house seniors and other vulnerable populations aren’t adequately air conditioned for the future summers. We have to find a way to cool them, ideally in a sustainable way, maybe with solar panels and better insulation before you use energy. And then we also have to use that money to deal with terrible flash flooding. And that means making sure our many hills and cliffs are adequately secured so things don’t slide down them.
I know that there’s people out there that have more wisdom on how we can better invest this money than I do in regards to helping our environment. But I would like to have a group of people around me that I can go to and say, ‘Hey, how should we invest this money in order to start this transition or what can we do to better improve the environment? What do you think are the low-hanging fruit?’ So the No. 1 thing is to get a group of people around me that know more than I know to tell me how we can better invest in this city.

Low-income and Black communities suffer disproportionately from health problems due to environmental contamination and air pollution. Do you think it’s the Pittsburgh city government’s job to redress this harm? What would you do?

The City of Pittsburgh has a responsibility to all its citizens. Smog doesn’t sit right over Homewood specifically. It’s the area. You see these higher rates of asthma, but we don’t provide a health care or an early childhood health care program that addresses that. 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.* [Fact check: Allegheny County Health Department monitors show significant variation in the amount of pollution in different neighborhoods.]
Of course we have a role to play. A lead ordinance would be a start. You figure if you want to talk about low-income, vulnerable communities where we see a lot of decompression of different toxins going into our soil based on how we deconstruct buildings, that’s a problem. That’s a major problem in vulnerable communities. And our children play in those lots a whole lot of times. You know, that becomes the football field. That becomes the kickball field. That becomes where they do a lot of their playing.
Absolutely. When we went to replace the lead lines, we prioritized low-income neighborhoods first. One of the things that the city needs to do more is that we have some of the lowest energy costs in the country, yet we have some of the highest utility bills. The investment back into older properties in our lower-income neighborhoods will have a direct investment in affordable housing by lowering the utility costs for the people that live there and will reduce our carbon footprint by not wasting energy.
If I’m in office, I’m going to call out politicians in the region that aren’t committed to clean air and this whole backroom deal system where you agree not to criticize your fellow politician because you’re in the same party. They’re barely party members, in my opinion.

Do you support using funding from the new parks tax to prioritize investments in disinvested communities?

Yes, and when we created the report prior to it ever coming up on the ballot, equity was one of the key indicators in determining how and where the funding would go. This is an historic tax; we never have had a tax to improve our parks. During our administration, we created the largest park in the city, in Pittsburgh’s history, Hays, that in 2015 was under threat of being fracked. And we finally went out and bought it.
I have parks that I like right next to my house all the time. It feels like the fair thing would be to bring that to everyone else. I live in South Oakland. It’s great. It’s close to everything. But other people don’t have this privilege. I think we should fix all the parks. But I understand priorities have to be made, and I’m pretty spoiled to live next to such great parks.
I don’t begin to support the park tax period. I would challenge it because I believe it’s a true form of taxation without representation. You go up to Riverview Park right now and daily you can see the roads crumbling. We’re not going to have a road there anymore to access that park. So the inaction seems almost intentional to come by this park tax. Why are they taking [Hays Woods] and making a new park when we have current parks that are struggling to even be open because that they’re left to neglect?
Absolutely. But we’ve also got to make sure that everybody in this region is paying their fair share. The parks tax was OK. But if we were to have someone like UPMC and some others paying their fair share. As a major nonprofit charitable organization, [UPMC’s] revenue stream is over $20 billion. If we had them paying their fair share, there could be a whole lot we do to improve our parks.

PWSA is about to announce a new set of rate hikes for next year, following a rate hike last year. Black Pittsburghers already have one of the highest utility burdens in the country. But PWSA says its infrastructure has been neglected and is going to fail if it doesn’t make dramatic changes now. How would you try to influence PWSA’s policies as mayor?

PWSA seems to be a slush fund of some type. It’s been neglected for so long, we’re going to have to reach out for other entities to help us fix this. And that’s where the gas and oil industry would come in. I think that there’s other ways to find that money to fix this without raising rates on the less served areas. I don’t know where they’re hiding that other money that comes from PWSA. I don’t have their stats and numbers, so until I see that, I can’t answer completely.
We have. We created protections for low-income ratepayers prior to raising any of the rates, going back to the lead crisis. We were proactive in assuring that low-income individuals would not be forced out of their homes because of a water bill. We have done everything from providing water purification and water testing for free during the crisis, to prioritizing low-income neighborhoods for the removal of the lead pipes. There’s no way of escaping this without raising rates, but our rates are still lower than the private rates that the people in the South Hills of the City of Pittsburgh are paying to Pennsylvania American Water.
I’m on record of being against the rate hikes because we can’t continue to just put the rate hikes on the back of our residents and think that we’re going to make progress. We’ve been raising rates for the last four or five years and we’re still raising them. It’s not like by raising the rates we’ve gotten any better. The one thing with PWSA that I’ve always said is that they haven’t been transparent when it comes to exactly what the problem is in the budget. I think that you have to do a serious financial audit of PWSA. When I get there, I’ll be able to take a deeper look into it.
Our infrastructure is a mess. So we’re between a rock and a hard place. The past administrations haven’t been fixing the water infrastructure. They decided to do nothing, because doing nothing is often the easiest thing to do. Fixing our infrastructure requires money, and then you have to find someone to pay for it. And when they say it’s a very old system that needs a ton of work, they’re not lying. Do I think PWSA has done a great job with managing things? No. But I also don’t think it’s an easy job and I think it’d be great to have better state and federal partners.

In recent years, the city has seen record amounts of rainfall, flooding, landslides, basement backups and sewage in its river. This stormwater has taken lives and cost tens of millions of dollars in damage. Scientists believe it will only get worse with climate change. What will you do as mayor to address the problem?

We need better, stronger community groups because you need to check on your community and your neighbors when there’s a crisis and heavy rainfall. You need to call your neighbors, your friends, elderly relatives and elderly neighbors.
If you’re talking about on Route 51 and the rock slides and we see it all the time, the mudslides, that’s in partnership with PennDOT. You also have Nine Mile Run and a lot of different organizations out here that do this all the time, trying to create where the water is going in a different direction, so that the water’s not running into our sewer systems. So also working closely with them to get a better idea of some of the studies that they have that they feel need to be implemented.
We have to adopt a green infrastructure plan that acts more like a sponge than a funnel. We have to be able to hold and retain stormwater where it falls and not simply be dependent upon a system of tunnels and pipes in order to be able to deliver it. And we have to make that a component of not only our green infrastructure, but our park systems. So when we look at abandoned properties and empty lots and vacant buildings, we not only look at the opportunity for housing, but we look in communities that lack green space, the opportunity to build out retention areas to hold water.
You still have flooding over on 51 in the South Hills. You still have flooding over on Woods Run. They’re starting to address it. They still haven’t addressed Washington Boulevard. Putting down protective arms for the road isn’t an answer to that flooding problem. And letting that in that park and just letting it grow and try to hold water in through the soil isn’t the answer.

One of the biggest controversies of this past presidential election was whether or not the candidates should support the fracking industry and its union jobs. Or whether candidates should oppose the fracking industry, because of the environmental impact. What is your stance?

We know we have to move away from fracking. But, in doing so, we also need to talk about that transition. We’ve seen what happened during the dismantling of the steel mills and how many workers were out of work for so long. And so if we’re going to show them that there’s a clear-cut opportunity to be able to work on these clean green jobs and that we can retool our workforce to be ready to get these jobs, they’re not going to say no to that. We can’t expect them to just walk off their jobs. It’s not that they’re in love with fossil fuels or in love with fracking. They’re in love with working and taking care of their family.
We know that the natural gas and oil industry is not leaving, and it’s going to be impossible to completely eliminate it. They have to keep clean water to frack. It’s highly regulated because it could be very dangerous if it gets out and it pollutes our water tables. They do an extreme job in trying to keep that at safe levels. I want them to come here to the City of Pittsburgh, and I want to use their technology to help clean our rivers. They keep our water tables clean. We have to regulate it and make sure that they keep us safe and clean.
There’s a lot of money in polluting the environment and fracking. Other politicians will bow and kowtow and get along with polluters. And my answer is no, I don’t want to work with you. And you take a firm stand and you don’t negotiate with the problem. You just have to say no. You either vote for clean air and clean water or you don’t. Summer Lee has a 100% record against voting against fracking. Ed Gainey should, too. [Ed Gainey has a 98% pro-environmental voting record according to the latest analysis.]
I made it very clear to each of the candidates during the [presidential] primary that I wanted a candidate who would call for a moratorium on cracker plants until an impact statement was made on public health, environmental well-being and the economic well-being of our region. There is a just transition away from those industries that needs to happen immediately. That just transition is called The Marshall Plan for Middle America. This country is not all the same, and the areas that have been dependent upon fossil fuels need their own strategy through investment in order to be able to move to a renewable future.

Mayor Peduto came out with a controversial position to oppose additional cracker plants, like the one being built in Beaver County. Do you support that position?

I support the fact that we shouldn’t be building cracker plants. But it has to be more than just words. It’s easy to sit here and say that we don’t support that. That’s not transformational. But we also have to fight hard to be able to get those jobs here, so that we can retool the workforce. The transformation is getting those jobs here. How do we get those clean green jobs in western Pennsylvania?
We’re talking about easy jobs that seem to have nothing but upside in the short term. But if you care about the long-term health of the city, you have to say no, we don’t want more of them in the region. And Bill Peduto made the right call.
I don’t know why the mayor of Pittsburgh is opposing anything that doesn’t have to do with the city of Pittsburgh. We need to stay in our lane here. You start joining forces that way, you start bringing people against you. You don’t do anything that’s positive for Pittsburgh because you can’t do anything about those things.

Since you came out against additional cracker plants in the region, you have tried to lay out an alternative Marshall Plan for the whole region. Why should Pittsburgh, which is developing an Eds and Meds economy, spend time pursuing economic policies across rural Appalachia?

The areas that we’re partnering with in the Marshall Plan, each of those cities has a research facility in them that can help with the innovative component that will be necessary in making that type of a just transition: Marshall University, West Virginia University, Youngstown State, Ohio State, Cincinnati, Dayton, Louisville. All of those have to be a critical component in making that transition happen.

The Pittsburgh metro area continues to be ranked among the worst cities in air quality. What role do you think the mayor should have when the air quality is bad just outside the city limits?

It’s important to understand that a municipality has certain codes that they are given enforcement power over. Building code. Criminal code. But not health code. Can I send police officers down to U.S. Steel and arrest them? No, it’s not even in the city of Pittsburgh. When I say that, people get offended: ‘Oh, you’re just coming up with excuses.’ It’s simply not in the power of a mayor of 55 square miles to be able to have any type of authority over those types of actions to be able to get anything done other than making enemies.
I believe that you can always lobby and advocate for what you believe in, and I’ve done that my whole life. Regardless of if I had jurisdiction or not, if this is something I believed in, then that’s what I did. I think that it should be measured so every year we can talk about the progress that we made or the progress that we didn’t make. And then if progress wasn’t made, discover why and be able to move forward to ensure that we’re doing things that improve the air quality.
We don’t have the power to regulate that. Ideally, we would have a more functioning government where the county and the city are more or less the same governing entity on these issues. Just because you’re a progressive doesn’t mean you can push through progressive goals unless you have partners. The goal is a revolution as a movement.
If we can reduce traffic in the city during rush hour, it will help because that’ll keep the ground temperatures down. A lot of that, a lot of the green space that they talk about is to reduce those ground temperatures because that causes more bad air quality. They monitor outside of the areas and direct towards different spots that the city doesn’t have control over. We have to address the things that we do here first.

What is your favorite part of Pittsburgh’s natural environment? How would you describe your relationship to nature in the city?

Washington’s Landing. When I was working [as a policeman], I used to go down there, and we would just get general patrols, and I got to go down to that part because it was relatively untouched. It was just an interesting place that nobody had ever told me about that I found.
I have a public MeetUp group, a weekly walking group. And we walk in Schenley Park once a week. It’s falling apart. They’ve stopped maintaining it. It’s covered in graffiti, and it’s not very well maintained. It’s been deteriorating over the last few years. So I would really like to see it better maintained.
Being in the woods of the hillsides. It allows me to be able to slow down. It reminds me a lot of my childhood, which I spent playing in the woods out in Scott Township. I find respite in nature. I still to this day enjoy camping and hiking as much as I did when I was younger.
I love the parks. When I want peace of mind, I love all our parks, our regional parks, all our smaller parks. And then the other part that I really enjoy is The Point Downtown. I love being there. I love the green space. I love the quietness. It has helped me to clear my mind.

Listen to the interviews