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Local Fossil Fuel Infrastructure Tours in Pittsburgh

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

Over the 4 days of the Clean Energy Convergence in September, PSR PA partnered with the Breathe Project, Environmental Integrity Project, and with Edith Abeyta of North Braddock Residents for Our Future to organize four different tours of petrochemical manufacturing, steel and coal plants, fracking sites producing natural gas, and infrastructure that makes up the midstream section of gas production. Read, listen, and watch below for an at-home experience of Pittsburgh’s harmful steel and coal infrastructure with the Steel Tour and stay tuned for the opportunity to experience the Midstream Gas Tour, which will be released shortly.

Steel and Coal Tour

Put on your seatbelt as we leave downtown Pittsburgh to visit the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works in Clairton, home of the largest coke plant operation in the U.S., and the Edgar Thomson plant in Braddock. We journey first to the Hazelwood neighborhood, home to Pittsburgh's last operating steel mill and the site of the largest solar array in Pennsylvania.

Matt Mehalik, Executive Director of the Breathe Project begins:

As we travel, you'll see physical embodiment of of history but there are layers of social dimensions of this toxic legacy that you will experience today and so you'll hear from people in communities that still live in this area and they'll be able to share their stories about what it's like to live in some of these places.

Hazelwood, where you head first, is one such neighborhood.

4:52 Where we are right now is land that was part of a coke works. So a coke works is when you take coal and you bake it at a high temperature to produce coke. Coke is used as one of the ingredients for steel making, you heat up iron ore, and limestone, and coke. And you mix it up at extremely high temperature and that drives out impurities from iron and makes steel. Now coke production is the dirtiest industry that there is. It's worse than petroleum refining because of the nature of how bad the impurities are in coal. Some of it is heavy metals like mercury and arsenic, some of it is particulate, some of it is organic compounds that get released and form hazardous air pollutants, and so the land we are on was a former coke works. You'll see they preserved ahead part of the superstructure where some of the production facilities were but a lot of this land here was railyard and where they would store the material that was used for Coke making, piles of coal and so on.

We pass an office building that Matt points out covered over land that had limited uses.

Before this was a steel plant, it was a coal gas refinery where before electric lighting they were using coal gas to run street lighting and there was a big coal gas refinery here. So there are layers and layers of contamination under the soil here.

You find yourself wondering: if the land has become so toxic that it can only be covered over with cement, and this coke plant spewed hazardous air pollutants here until 1994 when it was closed, what does that mean for the people who live in the surrounding area?

We continue to drive, crossing over the first of several bridges that open a vast view of rolling hills covered in trees, cut through by a thick river. The natural beauty of the landscape contrasts with the marks of industry seemingly everywhere we pass, especially close to the river. Matt points ahead.

Just Upstream from Monongahela and then to the river that is its tributary the Youghiogheny you get to a town called Connellsville

Today, we’re also joined by several people from the Lummi and the Tsleil-­Waututh Nations who have driven across the country with a massive totem, speaking out against fossil fuels and violations of indigenous rights. As Kwastlmut Sadie Olsen points out from the seat in front of you, many places around the country retain their tribal names. The names Monongahela and Youghiogheny are Lenape words used by the original inhabitants of this area, describing the character of the rivers. Matt reminds us that the Lenape were driven out from this area in the colonial times, even before the land we are on became the United States. Whereas the Lenape lived in healthy relationship to this area for at least 6 thousand years, the extractive philosophy that European settlers held - where the land exists to meet human needs - meant a relationship that not only harmed the land, but backfired on communities that were living near extraction sites.

Matt continues pointing out Connellsville's landmarks from the stunning vantage point of the bridge.

…And there is where the Pittsburgh seam of coal is, which is a massive coal seam that is still being mined even though it started being mined in the late 1800s, that’s how much there is. But that's why this area is so polluted, it's why the rivers were dead. There were no fish living in any of these rivers around Pittsburgh; they were essentially canals and it's not until recently that they’ve started to recover. You know you can fish here and I wouldn't eat the fish from here but you can fish because it's starting to come back.

These rivers carried coal, Matt tells us, but the steel industry was dependent on railroads to carry coke over land, and has relied on the railroad industry for over a century.

As we pass Edgar Thompson Steel Works in Braddock, Matt explains:

[Edgar Thompson] began construction in 1872, it's been in operation ever since. The name of it Andrew Carnegie named it after Edgar Thompson who was president of the Penn railroad at the time to flatter him to get the railroad contracts to build most of the nation’s rail infrastructure at the time.

Later, as we pass a train carrying coal and coke, a local resident tells us how coal still relies on railroad support today and visa-versa:

Coal and coke account for a very high percentage of the road revenues so they’ve got the railroads also on their side as far as lobbying is concerned.

We pass through Braddock, where the largest work stoppage up til that time took place during the Great Steel Strike of 1919. Forced to work for 12 hour days under dangerous and poorly paid conditions, hundreds of thousands of workers walked off the job at steel mills around the country to demand better conditions. With no more War Labor Board to intervene on behalf of workers when avoiding wartime strikes was a necessity, steel companies brought in strikebreakers, often Black laborers who were not allowed in White labor unions, and took out media campaigns against strikers, employing racism, xenophobia, and fear of Bolshevism. They hired Pinkerton detectives and enjoyed local police support, as politicians like those surrounding an ailing President Wilson turned a blind eye, needing big business money and support for the President’s new League of Nations. The strike would leave an enduring racist legacy that would divide towns for decades.

Tony Buba, who had earlier described the financial interdependence of steel and railroad, grew up in the Braddock area, in the center of steel industry and strike history. When you arrive at the banks of McKeesport, a small town where U.S. Steel used to have the National Tube Works, the documentarian and filmmaker tells you about the decline of a steel town.

The peak population was in 1920 when there was about 20,000 people, now it's about 1,700. The peak of the avenue, where you came down is called the avenue, was 1945-1955. So the town actually declined way before the mill shut down and sometimes it could have been the victim of its own success and in some ways because we had the people in the mill getting with the union and in the 50s getting a decent contract with the GI Bill all moved out because of white flight. If you're black you could not get a house in the suburbs so this area down here was known as the bottom, where African-Americans lived and they ended up doing redevelopment in Pittsburgh putting projects in Hill towns, moving people to the projects or to Braddock, they torn down the homes that were in the bottom area, so the people in the bottom area that worked in the mill, they couldn’t move to Braddock Hills, they couldn’t move to Penn Hills they couldn't move to Monroeville because they were not allowed to buy a house there, they were red lined so they bought other homes in Braddock and when they bought their homes in Braddock and moved on to 5th street, 4th st 3rd st, Talbot up the hill, white folks end up leaving and "fledding" so the decline has been going on since about 1955. Also with the building of the parkway in the road system and people now being able to afford cars, nobody wants to live next to that sound going 24/7 and the pollutants in the mill, and at one time you had to but once you had that choice you didn't have to do it. And for like for my family alone like when I was 12 my mom got cancer, my brother died of lung cancer, my cousin Lucy died of lung cancer - and neither of them smoked. And I mean lucky for me I've been really healthy, they sort of as I grew up now… they're the ones who end up really dying young, lucky for me my immune system has been good, my brother was always weaker. So we lived here down on 5th and actually was a fun time growing up in this area because it was wide-open. I mean there was gambling, there was drugs, there's anything you wanted at that period of time. So growing up as a kid it was all like fascinating as a kid to watch. I ended up going to college when I was like 25, I worked in factories. My brother went to school right after me, Carnegie Mellon right after high school, but came back and got to the filmmaking in the early seventies and came back to Braddock in ‘72, off and on started documenting it as a dying steel town and what I notice is that when you're gone for a while and you never see your grandparents, your great grandparents for a period pf 6 or 7 years and all of a sudden you see how they have aged. And that was what it was like for me coming home. Because I started college late, I just went straight through, barely came home, and went through it and came back and I’m seeing, “Oh this is going to disappear.” So I started documenting the town as a dying steel town. Starting with one of the big things that was going to save was the grand opening of a huge furniture store. And this is back in 1972, and it was going to be the savior of the community, and now fast forward it’s now 2018 and it’s going to be the grand opening of a restaurant that’s going to save the town. So its been these schemes and ideas forever and the reality is, I mean, the place has been abandoned. And trying to convince young people to move here is almost impossible when you consider the asthma and the pollution and everything else that goes within it….I mean you’re just caught in this, you’re just forgotten and trampled on constantly.

Matt, whose family is also from the area, underscores his message that industry and politicians made choices for the community.

When they built this plant in the 1950s, they knocked on all the homes that just showed up at the wrecking ball and just started knocking them down. My dad's family had to flee when they were knocking it down next door and they moved to 6th Street, this was 11th Street where they lived and so they fled to 6th Street from here. Like literally throwing stuff in pillow cases and that kind of stuff.

One of your fellow riders asks if there’s data on the air quality here, to which Matt replies,

“There's an air quality monitor in Braddock. The air quality where we are right now is worse than 95% of the entire country and where we're headed and Claritin the air is worse than 97% of the entire country

Another local adds, “People who work here all live in cleaner places.”


As we stand looking out at the water locals cannot swim in or eat from, some of the indigenous leaders speak, telling the group about successes in the Pacific Northwest.

Chief Rueben George of the Tsleil-­Waututh Nation speaks of the grief he feels looking at the dirty water and hearing about the polluted air, but also the hope that communities can make a difference against industries that put profit over community health. He references his tribe’s own struggle against the TransMountain Pipeline across the Alberta Tar Sands and into Vancouver Harbor, which is the Tsleil-­Waututh traditional and unceded territory.

We try to move forward but to improve what we already have not just to protect it or maintain it, and that’s for everybody. We re-introduced elk into our traditional territory, that brought back grizzly bears, wolves, flowers, singing birds, started to complete that ecosystem. Our elders said that they want our kids to experience what we experienced and my son now is for the first time in his life is starting seeing that come about, that the salmon are abundant where you can walk across them. That's what they used to say and that's what we did this year. So our prayer is always always that, and it leads everything we do. My elder here, he teaches me that we have to include spirit in everything we do because we need the strength. We need the strength to have the longevity to continue - my son says this, he says this, he says “I won’t be the generation that stops fighting”…This is how we feel about this because in our ceremonies we learn to have reciprocal relationship with spirit: Do this, my Uncle teaches me. That's what we're taught and that's what we turned into our law. That's how we went to court, that's how we win that's how we've been winning for 12 years of stopping this damn pipe line up in Canada. But that's what we pray for here. Because we’re always trying to be innovative, you know, came up ideas to go after the banks like 12 years ago. To go after the insurance companies take them to court. Go to the places where they're going and talk to their investors. That's what we did. Right now that's what we're doing. We’re finding out who their investors are, we go to those meetings and we tell them that it's killing people, that it's killing land, it's killing the water. I couldn’t imagine not swimming in our ocean again. I couldn't do that. …

We can change those things, we can make it better. But we have to get them to listen and unfortunately the best way to make them listen is to touch them where they love the most and that's the money that's how we explain things to them we affect our money and then they listen then we tell them an alternative way.

Kwastlmut “Sadie” Olsen of the Lummi tribe talks about their struggles with similar interests south of the Canadian border.

There was supposed to be a Cherry Point coal terminal to move the coal across the country and then to Bellingham and then across to China, but the reason that the Cherry Point coal terminal isn’t in there is because we used our inherent rights of the reef net and protected our treaty rights so placing our reef net which is our traditional fishing technology to fish in our ancestral homelands - that was outlawed, we brought it back, revitalized it that was led by my father and then Tsi'li'xw was there and it was the whole nation combining as one people so when we place our reef nets in the water the US Army Corps of Engineers supported the tribe and said that it was protected by our treaty and so therefore the coal terminal wasn't allowed. And we’re still fighting a lot of other things but that was one success that the Lummi Nation had utilizing our treaty rights and our inherent rights and our acquired power to support our environment and that can happen with other indigenous peoples too, supporting them and making sure that their treaty rights are respected and valued.

Chief Rueben George and his son sing a traditional song to bless the water and the work of organizers who are working to protect and clean it.


We get back in the car and pass the home of a stroke survivor who has recently featured heavily in the news.

Lieutenant John Fetterman lives right here, this is his house, and the story that no one knows is that he lives across the street from a steel mill. There’s a high correlation of people who have strokes who live in polluted communities. Now you can't make a direct connection and say “Because of A, B happened,” but you can say “Statistically there is a high correlation.”

Another rider questions Matt about the incentive locals have to defend or work for the industry.

You can get a well-paying job with a high-paying rate without necessarily having to have a higher education. But if you weigh that against the risks that you have of your life being shortened because you work at a plant like this, then those costs are to look a little differently. My great-grandfather who worked at this Mill, he lived to the age of 43.

You pass a yard of some kind of industrial product that Matt points out are steel slabs. They are most often re-heated in the basic oxygen furnace, and rolled into sheet metal at the Edgar Thompson plant for use in such products as automobile body parts or for refrigerator and other appliances. But seeing that much stacked up is unusual.

Yeah that's finished product. So you normally don't see that number of them stacked up. Right now US Steel’s in the midst of a labor dispute, a contract negotiation, and the reason why the air was clean today was that they just shut the blast furnace down yesterday. And so they're doing that in advance of this Ministerial and because they're trying to leverage the shutdown to lay off workers to get leverage in a contract negotiation.

You notice a green pipe alongside the railroad tracks that lead away from the lot where the steel slabs are stacked.

This green pipe running along the railroad tracks, that's the coke gas pipe that's taking coke and gas from the Clairton Coke Works and sending it to the Edgar Thomson Steel Works for the blast furnace, this pipe you see is right along the edge of the railroad tracks…

When you bake coal it gives off gasses, so they collect that gas, they run it through a process that strips sulfur out, and they sell the sulfur, and then they capture the gas and they put it in this pipe. It combusts just the way natural gas does, although coke gas is a mixture of different types of gas, there's still more sulfur in the compounds that are used in coke gas. It smells like rotten eggs frequently around here. It's used to run a blast furnace. It's what is combusted to burn to heat the blast furnace for steel making. And that's the reason why US Steel is still in business here with these old plants. They’re vertically integrated - all the money that another company needs to buy the fuel to heat the blast furnaces, US Steel gets for free because they bake the coal here and capture the gas. So that is its major competitive advantage why these things are integrated… as long as you're allowed to pollute then it's okay.


The car stops in a gas station parking lot and you get out. To your right, you see a very long but simple rectangular building with a white roof, on which is written in huge letters: “USS Clairton Works” and “Continuous Improvement To Environment” next to a globe. To your left rise multiple stacks spewing white steam and several more long buildings. As you watch the industrial city over the wildflowers and shrubs that cover the quarter mile between where you stand and the coke plant, you notice yellow haze emitting seemingly from behind the building - where there is no visible stack. It doesn’t last more than a few minutes, but the color makes you wonder if it's an accident. Matt tells you that that color of smoke is not supposed to come out from a stack or anywhere. It's up to residents to keep an eye on it since the industry has no incentive to fix these issues on its own, and the putrid-looking smoke is a frequent occurrence.

As you look toward the many-stacked industrial complex of the Clairton Coke plant, the largest coke-making facility in North America, you listen to five residents give their accounts of life in the shadow of this industry. They tell us that more wanted to come, but because the city has not prioritized public transportation to these older, lower income neighborhoods, as with many other neighborhoods we have passed, getting around is an issue for those without cars so some could not attend.

My name is Kim Meachum. I'm a 63 year old lifelong resident of Clairton. I'm sorry to say I'm the product of environmental rape. Breathing these cancerous particles and gasses as the years have gone by, I've lost countless family members to cancer: mom, dad, grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, and friends. My sister is 71 years old now, suffers from severe asthma needing a nebulizer nightly. Having a nephew who suffered with deadly asthma until his father moved him out of here 3 years ago to Martinsville, Virginia and he hasn't had a flare up since. I'm so disappointed and US Steel Clairton Works in fighting to lower the standards because of better readings on the monitors since production has been cut back because of covid the readings have been lower; regardless of how low they have big time we're still in imminent danger. The silent killer - particles so fine like diamond dust be on your car every day and cut the glass on the windshield like diamonds, so we're breathing that so what is that doing to our lungs. We don't know what it's doing to our lungs. Watery eyes, runny nose, congestion is the norm around here. Like I said I've lost countless family members and friends. My mom and dad grew up back there on Blair Avenue, this is where it started, they were this close to the mill, they seen it everyday. My grandmother moved down that way, we played in the dust in that parking lot right there - we were kids we didn't know any better! So the fact that they want to lower the standards and have shut down the batteries just to keep the particles and stuff down just because the traffic that's coming through here with whoever is coming Friday and you guys, so to impress you they cut back on battery which could be a lot. I worked in that battery in 1993. I was the jam cutter for my father and he died from leukemia. He went in the hospital and Sunday didn't make it to the next Sunday and he had never been in the hospital before but the doctor told us it was acute leukemia, all of a sudden it just come upon you like that and kill you in a week that doesn't make no sense. You know, I'm a taxpayer, I own my own home - and why is it so hard for me to get recognition insofar as doing better with the air? I mean they've had hundreds of years to do this and still yet they're not compliant. So what are we supposed to do? People make suggestions about us moving - well I got an answer for them, I'm gladly taking donations for a move. It's costly. So I just want to let you all know that we who live here suffer daily. After 2 a.m. you can spell the mill - sulfur, gasses throughout the night where some people won't even open their windows. Me in particular. Windows sills - filthy, porch - filthy; everyday accumulation of dust everyday on your window sills, cars, everywhere. And we know once it hits the grass it's in the grass I had my niece out playing in some white tennis shoes and when she came back from that yard they were black so don't just tell me it's in the air; it's in the ground too, so who's going to help us? That’s all I ask. Who’s gonna help up?

Kim tells us about what it was like to work for the coke plant alongside her father.

Well on battery doors, they have gigantic doors about 50 ft high, and my father ran the door machine he would take the door off and I would have to go in there with a long 20 ft bar with a plate on the end like a shovel and scrape the tar from around the doors to help seal them. I've worked on the batteries on top, I worked on the doors, I was on the door machine on the back side so I breathe these chemicals just like my dad did so he didn't make it to see 61. Luckily I'm 63, my sister did turn 70, by mother didn't make it to 70. We've lost family members but you can see for yourself the shortcuts that are being made, the gasses that leak especially at night cus I work at night too, there’s orange, yellowish gas that’ll come out of those {?} like on top of the battery - we already know that's poisonous gas. They may have done some things lately to help with that problem but it's always going to be there as long as they’re there.

Someone asks, is it worse at night than in the day? Everyone responds, YES!

I feel like it's worse at night because they don't expect that people are up and smelling it, it’s like so strong we can smell it with the windows closed.

Another resident, Genea Webb, tells us about health issues in her family.

I grew up here. I moved to the West Jefferson Hills School that she was talking about at the age of eleven or so. My parents had property here in Claritin, they still do; they passed on at early ages: my mom passed at 71, and my dad passed at 73. My mom died from breast cancer that went to her brain that they're not sure if it came from Claritin or - they said it was some kind of chemical but we can't prove anything. My father passed multiple myeloma, which is a bone cancer, which the doctor said came from some kind of chemical which they tell you can't tell you know where it came from.

These health issues have led the mills to be more cautious about the health of their employees in recent years, after employees consistently died young for so long. Resident Melanie Meade, who not only grew up here, but is a currently fellow with Blaque Women Rising working with the Black Appalachian Coalition, points to a building in the distance.

If you look there, that's a Crane Building business, that was where I believe 18 buildings held families. It was called Blair Heights Projects. And my maternal family grew up there. My mother was raised there by her mother. There were ten children and her father passed away by 45, and more than likely it was due to working in the Mills. And it wasn't until I met with Breathe Project and Matt that he told us that that's why a lot of the workers don't live here, is beauce they don't want them to put them at health risk by living here and working here. So more than likely most of our union workers aren't even residents of the community, and then they tear down our homes, take our land and do what they want with it. Most of it is sharing rights and privileges with their friends and family and when you tell the story to other people, they’re like, “I can't believe this is happening.”

Before the coal and steel companies knew about the health harms, Melanie tells us the mills housed people nearby, taking her family’s land to do so.

I've been a resident of Clairton most of my life. My father Thomas Mee, he grew up here. We had family land here before the Mills came and they took the family land. It was called Randolph Hollow, and that land was used to house the mill workers.

Everyone present has or seems to know people who have lost family land. The residents tell us mysterious property issues are common, from land being taken outright to other strange circumstances involving property. Genea is experiencing the latter, with back taxes that the city won’t give her information on. Their accounts remind you of Matt’s story, about the destruction of his family’s house, as well as red lining and other racist practices we heard about earlier.

My parents passed away and prior to that to my knowledge they were paying their taxes. When my mother passed at the end of 2014, I started getting all these things from the collection agency saying the taxes wasn't paid, things like that. I didn't know what to do, I was grieving my mother. I asked my father, “what should we do, what is this?” and he said, “It looks like it’s something for taxes.” I said, “So what I should do?” He said “You know, start paying them,” you know, so I start paying them, you know, $25, $15, $50, whatever I had to pay them each month on these supposed back taxes. My brother and I've been looking into it, and my brother found what he thinks is there was probably a clerical error between the finance office in Claritin and getting the bills when my parents moved from Claritin to Pleasant Hills. So we've been going to court since 2015, back and forth, back and forth, and talking to the mayor, and talking to the finance guy - they won't talk to us. We went and we asked for a right to know form to get an audit of all of the money that's been moved along between when they bought it, and my brother and I, til now, they never responded to that. And then I found out that they were supposed to let us know within five days that they received that. We never heard nothing. And in the meantime, it was sold to the sheriff sale. So we’re fighting to get that property back. Also there was property that my parents owned, and they tore the house down, tore my childhood house down, where my mother and her sister grew up; her brothers; my brother, myself. And there's another property my family owns on Mitchell Avenue, I talked to my uncle yesterday, cause my father is gone, so I have no one to talk to on it except my uncle, and he said no one told him that they were tearing it down so it seems to me like our rights have been violated in more areas than just the air and the mill. They’re taking people's properties and I think people are afraid to say anything to anybody because they're afraid they're going to get retaliation from the mayor the people in power - we tried to talk to them and it was like a mountain like this and we're down here they just wouldn't listen to us. They kept saying to my brother we don't have to tell you that we don’t have to give you that (Shoo you away like a fly, shoo you away like a fly) yeah, but then you want us to give you money. So I’m here to tell that part of the story, and see how we can get some help, cause I’m sure that they’re other people that this has happened to, this happened to him with his Grandma's house. I don't know if you guys had that happen?

(Another Resident:) My friend did, they owned a house on Chambers - yeah they pretty much just took it and did whatever they wanted, had it locked up and just told them they couldn't come on their lands and everyone from their family grew up in that house.

(Genea:) We don’t know what to do. (Name redacted) is going through the same thing with her parents’ house, and I'm sure that other people are going through this but nobody knows who to talk to. The only people who know who, and the people we know to talk to is the city and the council and School Board. So we all need help on that issue as well.

In light of these health and housing abuses, Melanie Meade take hope from the cameras that are placed on some neighbors’ properties that allow them to keep a record of what’s going on with - and what’s coming out of - the mill.

I think that they don't want us to have the cameras because we're empowered by having them and they don't know how to deal with power that they cannot control. They cannot overshine the story that you experienced. So the fact that we have cameras here that aren't able to be contested is very empowering and that's why I continue to do the work that I do. If I didn't have those cameras, then I don't think that I would feel that we can make the changes that we're working to make right now. And I'm so grateful for Breathe and Create Lab because they check on us and they make sure we understand how important the cameras are over what others may think. Without the cameras, it’s recall; you can’t, you won’t know, and they can always change the story, change the narrative without having the facts. And that’s how the cameras are very important.

I'm devoutly fighting for right to know and FOIA because those people who are already in a low-income situation have a difficult time trying to make their way out of here but they also have a difficult time living here. And one of the top, I think it's the number one health disparity on the EJ website, is low life expectancy. And so, for people to think that they shouldn't live a long vibrant life is really detrimental to the future, because if they don't live, then they don't get to pass what they know on to the generations behind them.

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