Western Pennsylvania native helps spur council conversation on air quality
November 3, 2014 12:00 AM
Jody Handley, a resident of Squirrel Hill, speaks at a news conference held prior to a hearing about air quality Friday in Pittsburgh.
By Robert Zullo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
At first, she thought it was sewage.
Jody Handley, who grew up in Greene County but left the area after college, moved back to the region three years ago with her husband, David Cowey and their 3- and 5-year-old daughters, seeking all those “most livable” attributes Pittsburgh has trumpeted: an expanding economic base, affordable housing and a growing urban vitality.
But at the first house the family rented in Squirrel Hill, a foul stench roused her every night around 2:30 a.m., forcing her to shut the windows. She later learned it came from the U.S. Steel coke works in Clairton, about 15 miles away.
“The only thing awake at 2:30 in the morning is U.S. Steel,” Ms. Handley said Thursday afternoon at a Pittsburgh City Council public hearing on air quality in Allegheny County.
Ms. Handley said shortly after moving to Pittsburgh she also was forced to fill a prescription she hadn't needed since college: an asthma inhaler.
“I was really disheartened when I moved here and just realized everyone just accepted it,” she said. “It’s madness.”
Simply arguing that the city that once was described as “hell with lid off” is “better than Beijing” isn’t good enough, Ms. Handley said.
“That’s our basis for comparison: Beijing and hell,” she said. “That’s a low bar.”
Ms. Handley’s passion was the ignition source behind Thursday’s public hearing, which packed dozens of people into council chambers for another look at well-known Allegheny County metrics. Local air pollution — from coal-fired power plants, coke works and an active steel mill, diesel emissions, and other sources — contributes to higher cancer risk, higher prevalence of asthma and other ailments.
A report released last year by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health found that toxic air pollution in Allegheny County means residents have twice the cancer risk of those living in surrounding counties. In some spots within the county, that risk is actually up to 20 times higher.
John Graham, senior scientist with the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force, said the Pittsburgh region continues to lag behind the rest of the country, which has seen dramatic improvements in air quality.
“The air quality in Pittsburgh is among the worst in the nation,” he said. “It’s still something that needs to be dealt with.”
Councilman Corey O’Connor hosted the public hearing, which featured representatives from environmental groups, scientists, and health and medical officials who have long lobbied for better enforcement of federal, state and county air-quality laws. He acknowledged the limits of city council’s power in addressing air-quality issues but maintained the importance of the educational aspect of the event.
“I think it’s important that she brought this to our office,” he said of Ms. Handley. “This is a conversation we have to have in the city of Pittsburgh. Yeah, the steel mills are no longer here, but our air quality is still just as important … If we want to be the most livable city that we’re proud of, we have to make it livable each and every day.”
Ms. Handley, a software product manager, is no stranger to Pittsburgh’s industrial past.
Her mother grew up in Braddock and recounted having to wash the soot that accumulated on her face during her walk to school every morning.
Her great-grandfather worked at U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock, and a grandfather was a tugboat captain on the Monongahela River.
But when she moved back, after living in New York and San Francisco, she expected a different city than the one of her childhood.
“I was really disappointed, actually,” she said. “You hear so much about how Pittsburgh has cleaned up, but to have this invading my house on a semi-regular basis … it’s not clean.”
Confronting attitudes of complacency — “It's better than it used to be” — and powerlessness — “There's nothing you can do about it” — convinced her to contact the Heinz Endowment’s Breathe Project and Mr. O’Connor’s office.
“I feel it’s a problem that needs a voice,” she said.
She was encouraged by the ability to get the hearing organized quickly, the responsiveness of Mr. O’Connor's office and the turnout.
“The number of people who were in the audience was really heartening,” she said. “That shows this is a problem that a lot of people believe in and is worth fixing. It’s just a matter of getting all of the powers that be in line. … Obviously, this is a county issue. I think that’s the next step.”
Robert Zullo: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @rczullo.
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