For well over a century, the Pittsburgh region was infamous for its industrial air pollution. Belching chimneys from coal and steel plants dimmed the light of the sun at times, prompting a writer for The Atlantic Monthly in 1868 to call Pittsburgh “hell with the lid taken off.” In the 1940s, the smoke and soot from factories coated buildings and bridges and was so thick that city authorities sometimes turned on streetlights in the middle of the day. Pittsburgh’s air pollution was so bad that the steel manufacturing center became known as the “City of Smoke.”
Those who worked in the steel industry and many others in the region long endured the choking pollution, equating the smog with prosperity and economic growth. That began to change with reforms in the 1940s. But only in 1970, with the passage of the U.S. Clean Air Act, did officials compel the steel industry to start cleaning up its operations.
Still, more than 50 years after the passage of the landmark federal legislation, the region’s air remains among the most polluted in the country. Allegheny County, which includes the city and the surrounding area, is in the top 1 percent of U.S. counties for cancer risk from toxic air pollutants released from stationary sources, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The county still struggles to meet federal health standards for pollutants, including particulates and ground-level ozone, resulting in some of America’s highest rates of asthma, COPD, and cardiovascular disease, especially among the low-income communities of color that are the most exposed.
Despite Pittsburgh’s transformation in recent decades from an industrial powerhouse to a 21st-century city where the main economic engines are the tech sector, world-class medical centers, and higher education, the region has been unable to shake its legacy of dirty air. Sixty percent of the region’s pollution still comes from industrial sources like steel plants, in contrast to metropolitan areas like New York, where transportation and heating of residential and commercial buildings generate the majority of air pollutants.
The region’s chronically polluted air is especially harmful for children living near outdoor pollution sources. The EPA found that 39 percent of school children who live in proximity to major sources of industrial pollution are exposed to emissions that exceed federal guidelines. A 2020 study of 1,200 Pittsburgh-area students, 52 percent of whom were Black, found 22.5 percent suffered from asthma resulting, in part, from exposure to a cocktail of contaminants including fine particulate matter, sulfur, and nitric oxide. Other factors, such as a person’s insurance coverage, also played a role.
A 2020 study led by Dr. James Fabisiak, a University of Pittsburgh professor of environmental health, found that in addition to pollution from industrial sources, environmental justice communities in Allegheny County were exposed to high levels of traffic pollution. As a result, they were up to 25 times more likely to suffer from exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and black carbon — a component of the fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5 — than other groups. Deaths from coronary heart disease among lower income and minority residents accounted for 40 percent of the county’s total, even though they represent only 28 percent of the population, the study said.
By many measures, Allegheny County remains among the most heavily polluted metropolitan areas in the United States.
Allegheny County’s air pollution challenges are epitomized in Clairton, a low-income community of 6,600 residents some 15 miles south of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River, where U.S. Steel operates North America’s biggest plant to convert coal into coke for steelmaking. The plant’s black chimneys emit towering clouds of steam and smoke from the 400-acre site — a plume visible from the Clairton High School football field less than a mile away. Clairton has an official poverty rate of 22 percent. Many stores are boarded up, and some residential streets are lined with abandoned homes and empty lots. The community has no large supermarket, forcing residents to drive or take public transit to the nearest full-service food store, about a 25-minute bus ride away.
In contrast to Clairton’s largely deserted streets, the coke works on its eastern edge bustles with trucks and trains carrying coal in and steaming coke out. The air smells intermittently sulfurous.
Among the local residents who suffer from poor air is 81-year-old Gloria M. Ford, who carries two inhalers to help her overcome the effects of bronchial inflammation. She blames her medical problems on having lived in Clairton for all but five years of her life, in contrast to her siblings who live in other cities but don’t have breathing problems, even though some of them used to smoke cigarettes, she said.
Ford recalled an asthma attack after returning to Clairton from a visit to her sister in Cleveland, Ohio. “I could not breathe,” she said in a recent interview at a senior center on Clairton’s main street. “I had to call paramedics. It was frightening. I could only speak one word at a time.”
Clairton, where 37 percent residents are Black, is one of the region’s environmental justice communities — as designated by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania — which are disproportionately affected by pollution and related illnesses, including asthma and cancer.
According to an environmental justice survey by the Allegheny County Health Department, Clairton had an above-average death rate from cancer from 2011 to 2015. In 2019, an environmental justice index that covered air quality and nine other factors showed that the most heavily impacted areas in the county were those along the Monongahela River, where many industrial facilities are located. The region’s pollution has long been worsened by weather inversions that trap bad air in its river valleys.
By many measures, Allegheny County remains among the most heavily polluted metropolitan areas in the United States. In April 2021, the American Lung Association rated the 12-county Pittsburgh region as the ninth-worst U.S. metropolitan area for fine particle pollution, even though it rose that year to its best-ever level by that measure.
Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, a nonprofit that advocates for cleaner air in the region, said recent improvements in the area’s air quality are largely due to the pandemic and the resulting economic slowdown. “It is reasonable to conclude that pollution sources in Allegheny County have not improved their performance much, if at all, instead taking advantage of lower background levels of pollution to keep the air near the [allowable] limit,” Mehalik said.
Mehalik and others have criticized the Allegheny County Health Department for inadequate enforcement of federal and state air pollution laws. (Under the Clean Air Act, local authorities in a few heavily polluted locales were allowed to take the lead in ensuring compliance with the act.) In addition to Clairton, the town of Braddock — just upstream of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela — suffers from pollution from U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson plant. Both the Thomson and Clairton plants have been subject over the years to repeated air-quality violations issued by the Allegheny County Health Department, yet high pollution levels persist. Environmentalists and some community advocates argue that fines imposed by the health department on U.S. Steel are viewed by the company as the cost of doing business.
PennEnvironment, an advocacy group, maintains that the health department’s historical reliance on consent orders with industrial polluters — rather than the imposition of strong penalties — has led to a failure to enforce standards. The department did not respond to requests for comment.
“Any effective approach to enforcing environmental laws rests on the credible threat of financial penalties sufficient to eliminate any economic benefit from polluting along with tough requirements to ensure that polluters make necessary upgrades to protect public health,” the nonprofit said in a 2019 report.
An asthma doctor in Clairton says 50 percent of her patients are Black, many are poor, and their cases are usually linked to pollution.
Despite its declining importance in the Pittsburgh region, U.S. Steel — which operates three plants in Allegheny County — still exerts outsized political power. The steel giant’s longstanding economic and political dominance in the region discourages public criticism, critics say. Howard Rieger, an activist who has organized a series of community townhalls to fight for better air quality, said a deferential attitude to U.S. Steel persists because “if you think about what built Pittsburgh, sustained Pittsburgh, it was the steel industry. Pittsburgh was designed to be subservient to U.S. Steel.”
Amanda Malkowski, a U.S. Steel spokeswoman, said the company has invested some $300 million over the last three years in environmental improvements to its Pittsburgh-area plants, even though the upgrades were not required by any government agency. She noted that U.S. Steel’s emissions complied with county health rules more than 99 percent of the time in 2020 and 2021. The company also plans to shut three “batteries” — collections of coke ovens — at Clairton by March 2023, to help it do “its fair share” in reducing local emissions, Malkowski said.
But hopes that U.S. Steel would do more to curb its emissions were set back in 2021 when the company dropped a plan to invest $1.5 billion in modernizing manufacturing technology at its three Monongahela Valley plants and invest instead in new factories in Alabama and Arkansas, where it will use non-union labor. U.S. Steel says it is committed to continuing production at the Pittsburgh-area plants.
In December 2018, a sprinkler system malfunction at the Clairton plant caused a major fire that destroyed pollution controls and led to a sharp increase in emissions. Some three weeks later, the Allegheny County Health Department advised residents of 22 Pittsburgh-area neighborhoods to limit their outdoor activity. PennEnvironment, joined by the health department and the nonprofit Clean Air Council, are now asking a federal judge to rule that U.S. Steel violated the Clean Air Act more than 12,000 times by operating without pollution controls for three months after the fire. The groups want a federal judge to confirm that the violations occurred, and to impose an “appropriate” penalty, said Zachary Barber, a clean air advocate for PennEnvironment.
Dr. Deborah Gentile, a pediatric asthma specialist who operates a clinic on Clairton’s main street, said it remains to be seen whether scaling back the Clairton operation will materially improve the air. In 20 years of caring for asthma patients in the Monongahela Valley, Gentile has found about 50 percent of her patients are Black, many are poor, and their cases are usually linked to sources of outdoor pollution such as the Clairton Coke Works.
She prescribes steroids and inhalers, recommends that those who can afford it install air filters in their homes, and urges people not to exercise outside on “bad air” days. But she recognizes that prevention of the sources of air pollution would be a better solution than her efforts to cure its effects.
“That’s really all secondary. It’s trying to control the problem after it’s happened,” she said. “In an ideal world you want to be preventing the disease and stopping attacks by preventing exposure to triggers.”
Gentile hopes the EPA will ease the burden on her patients this year by tightening its health limit on fine particulate matter when it reviews those regulations under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Even those tighter proposed limits would be less rigorous than standards recently recommended by the World Health Organization.
And any new gains in air quality could be partially undermined by Shell Oil’s giant petrochemical plant that is due to open this year in Monaca, about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, and by continuing fracking for natural gas at numerous sites in the southwestern Pennsylvania portion of the Marcellus Shale, advocates say.
In Clairton, Germaine Gooden-Patterson is trying to persuade her neighbors to defend their right to breathe clean air. A community health worker with the nonprofit Women for a Healthy Environment, Gooden-Patterson says it’s not always easy to persuade people to fight for clean air, especially when many Clairton residents are struggling with everyday challenges. It’s also difficult to persuade residents — some of whom don’t have smartphones or even internet connections — to report air-quality violations on a hard-to-navigate county website. For those who use smartphones, the Smell Pittsburgh app from Carnegie Mellon University’s Create Lab provides a more user-friendly tool for reporting bad air, she said.
Gooden-Patterson, 58, a single mother of three children who all live at home, has lived in Clairton for 16 years. “I’ve always had a heart murmur, but when I started to do this [health] work, I started to put two and two together, that the heart palpitations were coming from the air pollution,” she said during a walking tour of Clairton. She has considered moving away, but growing community engagement has persuaded her that efforts to mobilize her neighbors are taking hold. For now, she has decided to stay.
“I know that I can’t just get up and leave,” she said. “There’s work to be done here.”
Correction, January 28, 2022: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Zachary Barber as a lawyer for PennEnvironment. Barber is a clean air advocate for the group.