Why should Pittsburghers care about climate change? What’s happening in our backyard, and how does it connect to the big picture? Representative Summer Lee joins us to talk about environmental racism, intersectional climate justice, and much more. Host Michael pops in and out with the natural history (and livable future?) of steel.
Resources for Air Quality and Climate Justice Action around Pittsburgh:
• North Braddock Residents for our Future
• Breathe Project
Learn more and watch the companion We Are Nature video series here.
Episode Credits: Reporting by David Kelley and Jamen Thurmond. Produced by Taiji Nelson. Research and editing by Michael Pisano. Music by Amos Levy. Silly voices by Mackenzie Kimmel.
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Summer Lee (00:00:00):
If you're in this fight for our climate, if you are in this fight for racial justice, if you're in this fight for poor and working class people, we have to give people an opt-in and not an opt out. That has to be our base, opt-in, not opt out, which means that we know that there are people who are not all the way where we are. Right?
The reality is that you know more today than you knew yesterday. You going to know more tomorrow than you know today, which means that don't judge somebody because they're not where you are today. Because you got to remember that you weren't there at some point too, which means give grace. When you give people an opt-in, you give them space. You give them space to learn, you give them space to grow, you give them space to even mess up, right? Because all of us, each of us, are going to mess up in our fight. We are taking on a big fight. We're trying to save the earth.
Michael Pisano (00:01:00):
Welcome to We Are Nature, a podcast about natural histories and livable futures presented by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I'm your host, Michael Pisano, and today's episode takes us just outside Pittsburgh city limits into the greater Mon Valley. By Mon Valley, I mean the Monongahela River Valley, which has played a huge role in the history of life in this region.
We will learn about the non-human neighbors who we share the valley and the water with later in the season. For now, we're thinking about human history and the river. Monongahela is a word in Unami, a Lenape language, that roughly translates to falling banks, as the Mon's tall banks are prone to erosion and landslides. This river supported human fishing, hunting, and farming for thousands of years before European colonizers and their diseases decimated and displaced the indigenous peoples of the Monongahela River Valley.
In the early 19th century, the invaders built a series of locks and dams along the Monongahela to transport coal and other goods between Pittsburgh and West Virginia. The abundant coal and timber and the network of connected waterways made the Mon Valley very attractive to big industries. The first steel mill in the area was Andrew Carnegie's Edgar Thompson Steel Works. It started operating in 1875, and today in 2022, Eddie Thompson is the last mill making steel on the banks of the Mon, just under 10 miles from downtown Pittsburgh.
The steelworks operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As a result of this and the other industries in the area, the surrounding communities have some of the absolute worst air quality in America.
One of the hardest hit communities is Braddock, Pennsylvania, home to the Edgar Thompson Steel Works. It also happens to be right where we recorded the interview for today's episode. It's an interview with someone I deeply admire, community organizer and politician, Summer Lee. When we first recorded this interview in fall 2021, Summer Lee represented the 34th district in the Pennsylvania House of Reps. By the time you're listening to this, though, she may have moved onwards and upwards. Rep. Lee recently won a tough primary to represent Pennsylvania's District 12 in the US House of Representatives. She'll be the first Black woman to represent PA in Congress, and I would also guess that she'll be the first PA rep with a commitment to intersectional and equitable climate action, the kind I think we might need.
Representative Lee lives right here in the Mon Valley, where she was born and raised and has spent years organizing for better health and opportunities for the people living alongside the region's heavy industry. Many view her as a champion for environmental justice. If you haven't heard those words before, the basic idea is this. Poor people and especially poor, Black, indigenous, and people of color, are most likely to live alongside toxic industries that pollute the air, water, and soil. The same people are also most likely to live in the places that are most vulnerable to climate change. The environmental justice movement calls on humanity to address racism and classism and how and where we allow industries to pollute. The intertwined climate justice movement is a call to see climate change mitigation and adaptation as opportunities to address this toxic inequity. Put another way, while our communities take climate action and work together to find solutions, the solutions must start with frontline communities like Braddock.
We are going to get into it with Representative Lee in just a bit. It being everything from renewable energy to how to shoot down a fracking proposal to the future of the Mon Valley. Beforehand, I'd like to introduce two of my collaborators on this first season of We are Nature, field reporters Jamen Thurmond and David Kelly. Hey, guys.
David Kelly (00:04:58):
Hey Michael. How you doing?
Michael Pisano (00:04:59):
I'm doing okay today. Thanks. I am truly excited for today's ep. I loved what Representative Lee had to say, and I want to get to her ASAP, but I also want to spend some time with you two. You conducted the interview with Summer Lee. You'll be back throughout the season with reporting from all over the Mon Valley, so I was hoping that we could take a few minutes to get to know you too, a bit better. So David, Jamen, maybe we could begin with how you started working together.
David Kelly (00:05:27):
Yeah. So it started off as a hobby. It started off as fun. And pretty much, I bought a camera and I bought another one, and he bought one off me. And next thing we knew, we were shooting for a lot of different people. It's been a crazy ride, starting a business right at the top of the pandemic.
Michael Pisano (00:05:45):
David Kelly (00:05:46):
Yeah, we have made it work, and we've got a lot of great experience and stories to tell.
Michael Pisano (00:05:51):
Yeah. Well, what kind of stories do you guys like to tell? From the type of work you're already doing, but also looking ahead, what are the things that really drive you?
David Kelly (00:06:01):
It's really cool. This project was the first time that we had a chance to really work on something that was this close to our heart. I left a career working in the environmental sector in the enforcement side. So to be able to put the message out there of the people who are affecting positive change, it's something that really makes it worth waking up in the morning and fighting through and struggling and doing the whole starving artist thing. Stuff like this is what makes it worth at the end of the day,
Michael Pisano (00:06:30):
I'm really glad to hear it. Jamen, what do you think? What kind of stories do you like to tell?
Jamen Thurmond (00:06:34):
I'm really interested in hero to zero or zero to hero type stories. Anything-
Michael Pisano (00:06:40):
They're both good stories.
Jamen Thurmond (00:06:41):
Yeah. Anything where somebody really has to make a big transition in their life and do something new, do something different, I'm all over it. I love stories like that, just from influence of just watching movies and animated stuff over the years. I love seeing really good character arcs. Just piggybacking off what David said, it was definitely close to heart. I just grew up not really paying attention to a lot of stuff, and especially our world and making sure that it's clean and green. I worked in plastics before this, and I remember them talking... It had been maybe four years before I heard an actual initiative to talk about how on that level they would do recycling. And even though I wasn't that educated on it, I was like, "Well, that's wrong. You're just now doing this? Plastics have been a thing for years." And this was just an action item. That's wrong for somebody who's producing plastic on the level that they do. We're talking about billions of pounds of plastic per year.
Michael Pisano (00:07:46):
Yeah, which seems like it would come with a certain set of responsibilities.
Jamen Thurmond (00:07:49):
Michael Pisano (00:07:50):
It seems like, as with many of the stories from this season, it comes down to who's making money, who feels like they have power, who has an interest in how things are right now at perhaps the expense of the future.
David, like you just mentioned, you have some history with climate and environmental reporting. Can you just talk about that for a minute?
David Kelly (00:08:10):
Yeah. So for about two and a half years, I worked as an air quality inspector, pretty much going up and checking on environmental health and safety supervisors, making sure that they're doing their job and they're acting in the interest of the environment and following regulations that they had agreed to with the county as they have been set forth and not cutting corners to maximize profits and productions, which we often find. And one of the first things that they had told me was that there's regulations that have just now been fully gotten through the red tape since 1994. And I looked at the person that said that to me like they were crazy because I was born in 1994. So the idea that I could be born, go through my whole career, get into working for the county, and I am following up on things that had been put on process since before I was... That was mind blowing to me. So being able to finally shine lights on things and hold government accountable to protect us as we pay them to, it's great.
Michael Pisano (00:09:13):
Absolutely. And today's episode, we'll get into exactly that, talking about how government works and how government doesn't work sometimes, and it focuses a lot on justice, on things like environmental racism and intersectionality, a just transition for workers. And I'd love to hear from each of you about what justice means to you, especially in the context of Pittsburgh. What kind of problems do people who live here face, and what do you hope to see in the future of the area?
David Kelly (00:09:42):
So I guess I'll start with the first part and what does justice mean to me personally? And it goes deeper than just righting a wrong. Okay, someone stole something from you, someone else saw it. They make sure that you get your stuff back. Yes, that's in the moment justice. But for what I would like to see in the future, especially talking about climate justice and issues with intersectionality, I'd like to see something where, yes, we right the wrong, but we also put you in a position where that's not going to happen again. Where it puts us in a place where those things become a relic of a past because we are aware of these things. We are actively working against them. And to me, that is holistic justice. That is what we should be striving for culturally.
Michael Pisano (00:10:27):
Jamen Thurmond (00:10:28):
Yeah, I see justice as... It's one of those things where it's about doing the right thing and righting the wrong, but it's also about giving people the fair shot. I think sometimes there are initiatives that can help people, but they don't know about them. And some of that information is wrongfully withheld, because it's resources that people in power don't want to share. So I think it's important to not only give people the opportunity to help themselves out, but also to make sure that they know that these things exist. And even a step further, having people in positions that can help walk them through the process of that. Because there could be a lot of distrust even when they are presented with that information because they've never received the correct help before.
Michael Pisano (00:11:21):
Sure, yeah. It can be really jarring to hear that maybe the place you live has been poisoned the whole time you've been there. And maybe you didn't see it in the air; you couldn't see that the air was toxic, but that doesn't mean it's not. And Braddock, it's right there. The mill's right there; the pollution's right there. But air doesn't have boundaries, and the rest of the city suffers the consequences of not just this mill, but all of the other industrial places in our area.
David Kelly (00:11:50):
Yeah. Just speaking historically about the area and touching on olfactory fatigue, which is very real. So if you grow up and you're surrounded and all you smell is a farm, it's not going to smell like a farm to you on your 35th birthday. It's going to smell like your house. It's going to smell like your home. And it's very similar whenever you look at areas like Braddock and realistically the entire Mon Valley, because you have a lot of pollutants sitting in an area of low elevation. So all of that pollution just sits, especially if we have what's called a weather inversion where all of the cold air is trapped underneath, and we have a layer of hot air. So it literally becomes a bubble of just disgusting carcinogens, pollutions, and PM 2.5 and 10, just to give us cancer. It's terrible. And Summer Lee talked about her parents and grandparents can remember as children, sweeping this dust off the streets.
So what we're looking at is all of those heavy metals, all of that poisonous cancer-causing material that would be in a bag house, we're talking about tons and tons and tons and tons of it being pumped into a community on a daily basis. Them sweeping it with no masks, I'm sure, breathing it in, passing it on. You're touching it. All of these things have such a ripple effect that she would have no idea about. And so for her to be a product of this environment and to be fighting so vehemently and so successfully, to see where she is, it gives you a lot of hope. It gives you a lot of faith. And this is the type of representation that you would want to have.
Michael Pisano (00:13:28):
It feels like representation that cares about our future.
David Kelly (00:13:32):
Michael Pisano (00:13:32):
She just really gives me a lot of hope too, David. I appreciate you putting it that way. Summer Lee mentioned what gives her hope. She talks about the next generations coming up and being activated and not just being hopeful, but being active and turning their anger, their hope into some manifested power. What gives you guys hope? What makes you feel like there's something more to be fighting for?
Jamen Thurmond (00:13:58):
Yeah, I would really agree with what she said about the next generation. I think there's a lot of criticism of Gen Z. With millennials, there was a lot of counterculture and a lot of we're going to build our own thing. We're going to do something different than what the man has already built. Gen Z will just straight up say no. And collectively, they'll all just get on board with that. And that's important. They're more connected to the world than we were, which is crazy to think because they're not much younger than us millennials, but how they grew up with the internet, there's just a certain dominant consciousness of they just are all connected. They just know. They just know that things that are affecting them are also affecting somebody else, that maybe they don't live in their immediate area, but what they're able to do when they put their heads together and stand up for what's right, that gives me a lot of hope for what could happen in the future.
Michael Pisano (00:14:56):
Likewise. And I think it's a big part of the problem that I feel like we're facing in climate action is entrenched attitudes, people who have been trained their whole lives to think a certain way. And I don't think that it's necessarily their fault. There's a lot of information that's been fed to us, especially as Americans, about what's right, what's wrong, and who gets penalized for crime. It's across the spectrum, there's a narrative that is a huge obstacle to changing the way that we do business, which is what we fundamentally have to do to address the climate crisis. And so, I appreciate that Gen Z comes in and sees those perspectives and can call them out. And they have their own synthesis of knowledge from their access to the internet, the ways that they're connected to each other, and from witnessing these narratives unraveling over the past two, three years especially. So I don't know. It gives me a lot of hope too. David, do you have anything to add?
David Kelly (00:16:03):
Yeah, I agree with both what you guys were saying. The ideas, these thoughts, these primitive ways of thinking just become enforced norm, and they become a culture, in essence. And it's very refreshing to hear her say... She's laser focused on who needs to be moved out of the way because that's the obstacle of change. We have people that come from that, that is their mentality and they hold the power. And it's depressing when you see, oh, the median age of Congress, and there's a seven or a six. Why? Why? Why are these people making decisions that are going to impact generations that are going to come for the next 50, 60, 70... we have a huge disconnect, and politicians like this, like Summer Lee, it's nice to see that this is what the future is going to look like. And knowing where Gen Z stands, we are going to be holding our politicians to a standard like this. This is going to become more of the norm instead of a refreshing departure.
Michael Pisano (00:17:07):
I can't wait.
David Kelly (00:17:08):
Can you tell us a bit about the community for someone who's never been here? Like types of people that live here.
Summer Lee (00:17:24):
Yeah. Braddock is the town that built America. I don't think we have that as an official moniker, but in essence, it is very true because not just Braddock, but the Mon Valley as a whole, the birth of the steel industry, the steel that builds America, that was made right down the street from us right here. And because of that steel industry, this was a town with just a rich history, a rich tradition. The labor movement comes out of this town. At one point, we had more people per capita in Braddock than there were in Manhattan. At our peak, we had 20,000 people within, I think, three square mile radius. So it was a densely populated area with activity and industry and retail and everything that you could ever, ever want here.
And we had a lot of firsts. The first AMP, the first Carnegie Library was here in Braddock. Andrew Carnegie from Braddock, all those firsts here. So it's a town that has a lot of pride, a lot of history, a lot of tradition. But then we're also ravaged by the same industry that built us. It was a double-edged sword because as it left, as it collapsed, as it abandoned our community, we also lost population, and we lost jobs, and we lost revenue. That's when we saw our communities descend into blight. We were divested very intentionally. Very many communities of marginalized people are divested, left to fend for ourselves. But the reality is that we did. We did and we were able to weather the storm.
So right now, we're seeing a revitalization, a rebirth of this town with all this history. So we're seeing folks who are trying to get into the community. We're fighting back against the forces of gentrification because we've seen the models from towns around us, from cities all across the country.
This is a town that's prime for gentrification, but we've been fighting back, trying to keep even our local government built with the people who are from here, trying to make sure that the decision makers of the gatekeepers are kept at bay. So that's the challenge that we're facing here. How do we take this town with all this great history and all this great tradition, how do we take it and rebuild it but not rebuild in a way that displaces the folks who weathered the storm here? That doesn't change the culture so that those folks don't recognize their place anymore, their home anymore, and making sure that they're at the center of whatever it is that we're rebuilding. We're building, whatever it is, making sure that they're at the center. That's Braddock.
Jamen Thurmond (00:20:00):
Summer Lee (00:20:00):
In a nutshell.
Jamen Thurmond (00:20:02):
So you've got a long personal history here with Braddock. So can you briefly take us through what it's like to grow up here and then to be working in your capacity that you do here?
Summer Lee (00:20:14):
Yeah. So my family's from here, my whole family. So I grew up in North Braddock, which is the next town. Shares a zip code. My mom grew up a block, two, three blocks from here on Lily Avenue, right by the Braddock Library. And we all grew up in the Braddock Library. So when I was a kid, the Braddock Library was in its decline. Even as it was still the super cool community place, it was in its decline. When my mom was growing up and my grandma was growing up, that library was the center of the community. It had a swimming pool and a bowling alley and a theater, like a music hall and a gym, basketball courts. All of those things were right there for us in that community. So we all went and did our summer camps there at our afterschool programs there. So that's where I grew up.
It's a close knit community. It's not that many families. It wasn't that many people when I grew up here. Everybody knew everybody. And if you didn't, you were new and you were going to get to know us.
So that was my childhood. We all went to Whitland Hills, and we had our challenges there because it was a desegregation case. I think that even as we have the glamor of Braddock past, where it was, we still also have the injustice and the inequity that we can't ignore, the segregation, the differences of inopportunity for Black residents and white residents. And that's the story of the steel mill itself. Because the Black families, the ones who maybe didn't have access to the unions until later, the ones who took what we call the man-killing jobs, the harder jobs. They came home, they lived closer to the mill itself.
So if you think about the Black population, a lot of my family lives what we call down bottom, sitting right up on the steel mill, right on top of towers. That's where a lot of us lived. And a lot of that was because we couldn't afford to leave. But it was a different Braddock when I grew up than my mom grew up. My mom will tell you about the times when the whole town moved to the steel mill. The kids knew when they had to come out and sweep up the soot. So their lives were scheduled to that. They were like, at this time, we got to go and we got to sweep up the dust. At this time, the bell whistles, the next shift comes. Dad's coming home or my brother's coming home. That was how the town was.
So it wasn't like that when I grew up. It was almost a ghost. It was a shell, a ghost town. So much so that all the grandeur of the buildings, blight... They were torn down. You remember lean on me, when they were called the ghost. That's what I think of every time I think about Braddock, but I also think about how it feels to rebuild on top of that. So it was a mixture of joy and pain and happiness and sorrow and, I would say, affluence and poverty, all meshing right here.
Jamen Thurmond (00:23:05):
You touched on it just a little bit about the kids sweeping up the soot. That's grim imagery, considering everything. Can you speak historically on the air quality in Braddock?
Summer Lee (00:23:20):
I think one of the more challenging issues that we have right now is getting the people who are from here historically, who are still here, to transition in their mind from the time where the pollution was very visible, where the air quality... Where there were no regulations and the air was black from the soot, and you can smell the sulfur because it wasn't as regulated as the sulfur trucks would go by. It smelled like rotten eggs consistently as I was growing up, which means I know when my mom was growing up and my grandma was growing up, I know it smelled like that then too.
So the problem is now is that the pollution is still there in particulate matter. It's the invisible pollution that we can't see. So it's almost-
... invisible pollution that we can't see. So it's almost lulled the community into a sense of safety, right? A sense of progress, because if they can't see it anymore, it must not be as bad as it was. But the reality is that's not necessarily true. So that's actually been the challenge, because the quality of air and the pollution is so notoriously bad here, it's been connected to the imagery. We can't see that anymore. And sometimes we don't always smell the sulfur as consistently as we did, but the pollution is still there. The health impacts are still here. We still have the rates of asthma because of the particulate matter, we still have the same rates of COPD or cancer or respiratory illness. That's still happening. So that's been the challenge in fighting that now, transitioning the community from this idea, this false sense of security, that since we can't see it no more, that it doesn't exist.
Michael Pisano (00:25:06):
We'll get into specifics about Braddock's air quality problems and possible solutions all throughout the episode. For now, let's just say that the air pollution in Braddock comes from making steel. The story of steel making is incredible, and I'd like to try to tell it to you right now, starting around 4 billion years ago.
The earth was pretty young, like 500 million years old, and it was a hot mess. I mean, really hot and really, really messy. All of the elements that make up our planet and all the stuff on it, everything from tomato plants to space ships, all those elements were still just kind of jumbled up. Uranium was floating around next to carbon, next to gold. All of it just swirling in this big simmering ball of soup. Well, one thing led to another, and around 4 billion years ago, that primordial soup got so hot that all the iron hanging out in the soup melted. Iron, by the way, is only formed when a star explodes. Just sit with that for a second. All the iron on earth, including the iron in your pipes, your favorite cookware, the four grams of iron that are inside your body, all that iron was formed when a sun blew up. Anyways, back to our hot earth soup. In an event the geologists named the Iron Catastrophe, all the iron on earth melted. And because iron is heavy, it and some of its other heavy pals, nickel and sulfur, mostly sank to the center of the earth, forming the planet's molten core. This started the process of separating the planet into layers, including the deliciously not molten, habitable crust on the surface that we call home. This molten iron core also created the earth's magnetic field, which is cool because without it, not only would compasses not work, but also solar, wind, and radiation would pummel the planet, and make it a dry and dusty and radioactive mess like Mars. So in theory, the Iron Catastrophe set the stage for us to exist on Planet Earth. Thanks, Iron Catastrophe.
Fast forward about 2 billion years, to another excellently-named moment in natural history, the Oxygen Revolution. In short, some of the first photosynthetic organisms were evolving and booming in population to produce oxygen in quantities that were completely changing the earth's oceans and atmosphere. Oxygen was toxic to a lot of the living things at that time. So lots of them went extinct, which made room for more complex, oxygen-loving life to evolve. Thanks, Oxygen Revolution. Also, this oxygen combined with dissolved iron floating around in the oceans, this formed iron oxides, which are insoluble, meaning that they can't be dissolved in oceans. So that iron fell out of solution, and sank to the bottom of the ocean, forming big deposits of the metal.
This iron that sank to the bottom of ancient oceans, two-ish billion years ago, is the iron that humans turn into steel today. More about the next steps, the science of turning iron from an exploding star into steel later. First, there's a lot more to hear from Representative Lee, and just very quickly on the heels of this natural history lesson, let me squeeze in the briefest note about Livable Futures.
These celestial origins are one of many things that makes iron and steel special. Like once in the lifetime of a star special. Mining iron and refining it into steel are no small tasks, and the history and the labor of doing so is incredible. So in light of that, I'd ask you to consider how we treat and use unbelievably precious materials like these. It shouldn't be for whatever project comes along. It should be used thoughtfully with care. If you ask me, steel is too special to end up as a luxury condo, or a soon-to-be obsolete weapon of war. These things that keep a separate and afraid. Rather, steel's future should reflect its magnificent history by building the lasting core of what makes life possible.
Jamen Thurmond (00:30:01):
So what other climate justice and climate change issues, besides air quality, are important in Braddock?
Summer Lee (00:30:08):
Water. Lead in water. When we think about the lead and water, we think about Flint, Michigan. And Flint was a disaster, and it was a manmade disaster. But we don't think about the fact that Pittsburgh is almost Flint. We are very close. We are coming up on that, but we don't get national news. There are no public health professionals coming in to fix our crisis, but it is a crisis still. So lead in our water is a huge crisis here. But also the blight. The blight in and of itself is an environmental concern, and it's also a part of the reason why it's so expensive to get rid of the blight.
So now, if you have a property that you have to tear down, you have to get an asbestos study, which costs thousands and thousands of dollars, dozens of thousands of dollars. If that house has asbestos, it can be as high as 25-$30,000 to remove one home. If that house has lead from the paint, we know that, when they collapse that house, that lead disperses into the air, it disperses through the neighborhood, and the kids that play by those buildings, they breathe that in. So we think about lead in the paint as being an issue when you eat it, but it's also an issue when you tear the property down. So those are environmental issues that we see in Braddock, and they kind of get overshadowed by the very visible kind of pollution from the mill. No, there's always a truck coming through. What are you talking about? That's what you've noticed. So the rows are trash, because the trucks roll through them all day. You go up the street and it's just like a rollercoaster.
Jamen Thurmond (00:31:44):
Yeah. Then you got the particulate emissions coming off the back when they don't cover them, and everything.
Summer Lee (00:31:49):
You can see the smoke coming up off of the trucks when they're not covered well. It's kind of wild actually.
Jamen Thurmond (00:31:57):
Awesome. What kind of solutions are community members working here towards?
Summer Lee (00:32:02):
Community members are really engaged here. We have groups like North Braddock Residents for Our Future, we have Brief Project, that's a neighboring, not here in Braddock specifically, but very close and working here, and Gasp, and these other organizations that have been working in concert to address the pollution from the mills, the coke works, the other kind of industry in this area. They've been diligent. So when we talk about the fracking proposal that was here, that was a community-led effort. North Braddock Residents for Our Future took that up. They organized, not just Braddock and North Braddock, and Rankin, they organize this whole region, to get folks to come out, whether it's writing letters to the DEP, demanding public hearings, really researching the group that was going to come in to poke holes and flaws, and the dangerousness of their processes, or the lack of expertise that they have here, and really exposing that.
So that was all community- led, and it's been ongoing. This is the biggest issue. The fracking proposal and the mill are the biggest issues contributing to our air quality. So that's the thing that people focus on a lot, but it really speaks to kind of that community process. So while they were kind of doing the activism around that, they were also leading the charge in getting new elected officials. So it went hand in hand, because at the same time that they were taking on the fracking proposal and the mill, they were also getting new elected officials in those local governments that would then vote on their behalf, and ensure that they were protecting them with their votes while they were in council. So that was the way that the community kind of solved that, a very specific issue that had a specific timeline to it.
Michael Pisano (00:33:51):
At the end of 2017, US Steel, that's the company that operates the Edgar Thompson Steel Works now, they announced that they'd signed a lease with the New Mexico Oil and Gas Company, to dig six fracking wells at the Edgar Thompson site. Those wells would've provided natural gas for the steel mill, profits for oil and gas executives in New Mexico, and air pollution, water contamination, truck traffic, risk of catastrophic explosion, lowered property values, all sorts of other nice stuff for the 21,000 or so people living within a two-mile radius of the fracking site.
Fracking or hydraulic fracturing is a way to extract oil and natural gas from rock formations thousands of feet underground. As you might imagine, this is a challenging place to extract anything from. So the process takes a ton of resources, a ton of energy, and produces tons of toxic waste. As you might imagine, fracking is also speeding up climate change. Fracking emits tons of methane, which is the main ingredient in that natural gas that frackers are drilling for. Methane is really good at trapping heat in our atmosphere. Pound for pound, it's like 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This makes it a major greenhouse gas. The good news is that methane hangs out in the atmosphere for a much shorter time than CO2, like a decade as opposed to a century. So taking action to reduce human methane output now can have a big, big impact in time to make a big, big difference in climate change mitigation.
What kind of action you might be asking? Good question. That brings us right back to the fracking proposal at the Edgar Thompson Steelworks, in Braddock. After US Steel went public with their plans in 2017, people in Braddock mobilized. They knocked on each other's doors to build their ranks. They called the press, and got coverage on the story, which brought more allies to the fight, and put more pressure on US Steel and the DEP, the Department of Environmental Protection, which is responsible for issuing permits to allow fracking. They showed up to public meetings, they spoke their minds. They reviewed the fracking company's applications for permits, found faults, submitted comments outlining their concerns, and opposing the well to the DEP, and to the Allegheny County Health Department, which is in charge of air quality concerns. They communicated with, and pressured the municipal zoning board, which would need to okay the project. And like Representative Lee said, they worked to replace elected officials who supported the fracking proposal, despite the community's concerns.
Whenever a new permit application or public meeting or comment period came up, people stood together to oppose fracking at the mill. In 2020, the East Pittsburgh Zoning Board denied an essential permit. That was the result of people organizing. Early in 2021, US Steel announced it was abandoning the fracking project altogether.
This is not a standalone victory. In 2014, just a little bit before North Braddock Residents had shut down a proposal to fracking in a golf course in the town. In summer 2022, because of campaigning by people who live in the Pittsburgh region, Allegheny County Council banned new fracking in county parks. New York State, Maryland, Vermont, Oregon, and Washington State have all banned fracking in recent years. Fracking is banned in France, Bulgaria, Ireland, South Africa, and many other countries around the world have issued moratoriums that have halted fracking temporarily. This is people considering human health, the climate, and the promise of a better future.
Jamen Thurmond (00:37:31):
Okay. So your background includes experience as a community organizer in the area. So what were the main concerns that motivated that work and the kinds of change that you were trying to make in this area?
Summer Lee (00:37:43):
Yeah, definitely. I think that one of the things that we lack or have that's been missing from some of our activism, and even our movement work is how do we kind of connect movements in our activism, and those things that we're advocating for, how do we connect that to the political process? So I've done a lot around organizing to get new folks in the school boards or local government, and I did that before I even started to run myself. So I would say organizing has always been, how do we take the issues that matter most to us, and how do we connect it to what I say is an electoral solution.
Jamen Thurmond (00:38:21):
Awesome. So how does your work, as a state representative, connect with environmental justice?
Summer Lee (00:38:27):
Yeah. When I first decided to run, I would say, like, the bigger issues that we had were education and environmental justice. We live in a community where we have a steel mill that, on one hand, has been one of our biggest employers, and not only is it one of our biggest employers, it's also amongst our biggest tax base. So at the same time, it helps our school, because our schools rely on that tax revenue for its funding, whether our kids get computers or new textbooks is directly correlated to that. But at the same time, it contributes to us having amongst the highest rates of asthma in the nation for our kids, COPD, respiratory illnesses. The pollution is what contributes directly into whether or not people even move into this area, which ties right into that cycle.
So when we were talking about environmental racism, and really helping to make that connection, because the environmental movement is oftentimes white. It's oftentimes affluent, suburban, but who we know are most impacted by the environmental crisis, climate change, that's black and brown folks. It's people of the global south, and those are the people, the voices, the narratives that are always missing from that. So our campaign ended up being the perfect vehicle to really do environmental activism with a solution tied to it. And that solution, in our instance, was there are elected people at the local, at the state, at the federal level who create policies, who make decisions, who decide whose jobs are going to come and go, that that ties directly into our everyday life.
So if we can get new people in, who care about our environment, new people who understand the importance of jobs and our health, wealth and health, and not either or, not making poor people and black and brown people choose, if we can start to talk about that, then we can come up with solutions that are faster than a decade from now, two decades from now. And the reality is we had a fracking proposal right here at the steel mill. That fracking proposal ended up galvanizing, not just these black and brown communities that are sitting right here in Mon Valley, but the communities that are neighboring it, because it was going to be one of the fracking proposals that was closest to urban center, closest to a densely-populated center.
So we had people from all over our region, who flocked to this campaign, that would also help to stop that fracking proposal. So that was one of the biggest things that we accomplished. Just out of a campaign for a state rep, connecting people, voicing their concerns, and giving them the tools they needed to stop something that was going to hurt them.
Jamen Thurmond (00:41:02):
What can the state do via policy or funding to address environmental justice? And what would you personally like to see our government do?
Summer Lee (00:41:09):
My goodness, I would like to see the government do so much more, because the reality is that, in a state like Pennsylvania, we're not really doing anything. We are constantly in battle with labor, with communities that are starved of resources that have to make just undesirable decisions. They have to make unconscionable decisions every day because the communities have so little revenue, so little resources. We're always pulled between that, between jobs, between a government that doesn't believe in climate science, and even the framing of, "Do you believe in climate science?" Is absurd, right? It's not Santa Claus, whether or not you believe in it, it's happening, whether or not you believe in it, climate change is real. Climate disaster and climate catastrophe is real. We're watching it play out in areas just like this.
So at the same time, while we are struggling with pollution, we're also in a flood plain area. So all of these things are happening at once, and our state government is completely impeded by people who refuse openly, publicly, to take any action at all.
So at our state government, anytime you have a bill that does anything, a bill that would impose a moratorium on fracking, or even a severance tax on fracking, which Pennsylvania doesn't have, as one of the top oil and gas producing states, we don't even have a severance tax, to even start to talk about a moratorium. That's all because our state government refuses to even move a bill. We can't even get a single bill that goes through the Environmental and Energy Resources Committee, let alone go to the house floor.
So so much that we can do, we can fund the DEP, the Department of Environmental Protection, which has been chronically underfunded for years and years and years and years, just like our education system. We've never restored that funding, which means that oversight is lacking, which means that any sort of permitting process, all of that goes by the wayside when we don't have a robust DEP that has people who understands climate science, understands EPA regulations and all that. That's the other thing.
We can go over beyond at the state level, what the EPA regulates, and that's the one power that the state has. The federal government preempt us, but we can, at the federal baseline, we can go over and beyond, which makes sure that, when we're talking about particulate matters that comes out of places like the steel mills, the coke works. When we're regulating particulate matters, we can actually go beyond the state level, excuse me, the federal level, we refuse to do that. We could regulate storm water runoff. We can fund infrastructure projects that will help these communities that are oftentimes in flood planes. We refuse to do that.
We can put money into infrastructure at the state level, which will provide the very jobs that will, not replace, but that will be the transition from the oil and gas industry, from polluting industries into sustainable energies, or excuse me, sustainable industry. Those are all the things that we can and should be doing at the state level. Those are all the things that we are just completely refusing to do.
Jamen Thurmond (00:44:15):
So to harmonize with that, so for people like us, what can people do to support or encourage their elected officials in those directions?
Summer Lee (00:44:26):
Yeah. I'd say it's like multi-level, because everything that we do has to be a multi-level approach. So it depends on what your passion is. If you are of an affluent community, like if you're from an affluent community where, let's be real, your schools are already well-funded, you already have cleaner air and cleaner water, which means that your solidarity is key. So as we see communities, like Braddock, have to struggle with the decision to take on a fracking proposal so that they can generate revenue, or have clean air and clean water, and protect children, protect our elderly, protect our vulnerable. When you see communities struggling like that, those voices are even more important, because we need those people to say that, not only will we refuse to have it in our communities, where we have the organizing capacity to stop them, where we have the revenue to say no to them, where we can say no to the distribution center, because we have a different tax base.
It's important and incumbent upon you to say, "No, we won't allow you to do that to our neighbors either. We won't allow you to continue to give a raw deal to our black and brown and our poor neighbors." That's important, which means that your politicians matter. So when you are voting, whether it's at the local, or the state, or the federal level, who you bring into office, you need to know what their environmental policy is. You need to know what their priorities are, when they're going to allocate funds, who they're going to allocate funds to, what neighborhoods they're going to allocate funds to. So that's number one. That's the first thing that we can do.
The second thing that we can do is tapping into activism and movement work that already exists. So for instance, where we were trying to stop this fracking proposal here in the Mon Valley, we had people who came out from other areas that have already had experience doing that. We had people who were knocking on doors, bringing out the neighbors, like the people who are everyday folk who are going to be impacted. And they let those folks know when there were going to be DEP hearings. They let them know when there were going to be local officials who were going to come in town. They organized town halls in person, via Zoom.
We organized new elected officials. So at the hyperlocal level, where these communities got the right to vote up or down on a fracking well, we got to replace those folks, halt it, put new folks in who believe in environmental policies and science, and because of that one action, and I won't say one action, but because of that, we were able to stop that, because those communities then were able to take another vote with new folks who are community-minded, and then they were able to say no to that.
So those things all matter. So connecting to local issues, very specific, because even while we're fighting the big climate catastrophe, even as we're talking about climate change, and hurricanes, and all of those things, still in black and brown communities, and in poor communities, rural communities, we're fighting that everyday stuff that contributes to that bigger thing. So plug into those local communities, listen to them. Don't come and tell them what they need, but come and ask them what they need. Ask them how you can help them and listen. Those things all help us.
Michael Pisano (00:47:36):
This is so, so important. If you, the listener, want to take climate action that will make a difference, join your local fights for environmental justice. The industries violating human rights in your backyard are likely the same ones driving climate change. Let's take steel. Steel making emits around 10% of all fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. That's so much gas. Scary, yes. But also its big impact ...
Scary, yes, but also its big impact makes it a big opportunity, an opportunity to reduce climate changing emissions and, bonus, to address environmental racism in Braddock and to improve air quality for the million or so people who share an airshed with the steel industry in the Mon Valley. Yes. So what can we do? Okay, it's complicated because steel is important. It's everywhere. I mean, if you're listening to this in a car or on a train or in a large building or on a yacht for some terrible reason, chances are that it's skeleton is made of steel. Nails, bolts, screws, household appliances, bridges, wires, surgical tools, cutlery, steel is everywhere. But just because it's everywhere, this problem is complicated, doesn't mean it's unsolvable. As with any complex problem, it just means that we need to tackle it from lots of different angles.
Okay, first, let's address what makes the steel-making process so bad for the climate, which brings us back to the story of forging sun shrapnel iron into a foundational material for modern human civilization. The iron that's made into steel here in the Mon Valley is mined Minnesota. There all the easy-to-reach, high iron-content rocks were mine and used long ago. So today, to produce the 40 million tons of iron that Minnesota produces annually, first they have to strip 105 million tons of surface rocks away. Then they dig out 240 million more tons of rocks containing some low percentage of iron. This 240 million tons of rock is pulverized, and the iron is separated out with water and magnets and screens and chemicals. And the iron dust is turned into pellets. The pellets are loaded onto boats and trains, and off they go to steel mills across North America.
In Braddock. The pellets are melted in a blast furnace, heated by coke from Clairton Coke Works, another US Steel facility on the banks of the Monongahela. Clairton's about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh, and it also has some of the worst air quality in the nation. Coke is a refined form of coal. And if you want to know more about what makes coal so tricky and how to stop mining and burning it, well, we've got an episode called Coal Country. Go give it a listen.
Anyway, iron from Minnesota, coal from Appalachia that's turned into coke and Clairton, unbelievable amounts of water from the river, and many other precious hard-to-extract, raw materials come together to make steel in Braddock. Huge blast furnaces melt the iron, oxygen's blown through them, and the heat and the oxygen remove impurities in the iron like excess carbon. The purified molten metal is combined with different alloying materials, like chromium or nickel, and, voilà, steel has been made. You can see what makes this process hard on the environment. It's intense, but that's where we find our first set of solutions by making this process as clean as possible.
How? For one thing, steel is very, very recyclable. It's already one of the world's most recycled materials. By reusing scrap steel, we cut out the resource and energy and pollution intensive process of mining and refining and shipping new iron ore. Let those two billion year old rocks rest. They have freaking earned it. We can also cut coal out of the equation. This is already happening with existing widely used technology, called electric arc furnaces. So instead of a blast furnace, you can use an electric arc furnace that melts steel without coal. They've got other benefits, like they're easier to turn on and off to make steel based on need, as opposed to a blast furnace operation, like the mill and Braddock, which has to run 24/7, seven days a week.
There is still the issue of where the electricity for these furnaces come from, which is a good reason to transition to renewables, like solar and wind. But even while we're still figuring that out, electric arc furnaces still remove all the emissions and other environmental problems of mining and burning coal, and they're usually used with recycled steel. So huge wins all around. Recycling and greener steel-making tech are important steps. And that kind of harm reduction is definitely worth investing in, especially if you're a steel making company that made $4.6 billion last year. We'll come back to that later.
For now, I think there's another really, really important piece, which is deciding how and when to use steel and resources like steel. It's considering alternatives, not only alternative materials, but also alternative attitudes towards development and growth. For me, there are two helpful guiding questions. First, how can we use resources to create sustainable practices? Second, how can we use resources to help relieve suffering? In light of our climate predicament, we might need to pause and reconsider our priorities as a society. It's going to take some serious creativity and change and some real hard work. But if what's on the line is the future of the planet, then I'm willing to roll up my sleeves.
As our climate changes, Pennsylvania is becoming warmer weather and experiencing more extreme weather and worsening air quality. So how are people in our region already experiencing that in their daily lives?
Summer Lee (00:53:33):
Yeah. If we take just regionally, whether that's Pennsylvania or even just the larger kind of tri-state area, when we see these hurricanes that are reaching farther up north, right farther inland, when we're seeing increased flooding, intense storms... So in Pittsburgh this year, we saw storms that were incredibly powerful. These are just everyday rain, but they're not your everyday rain, because they last longer. We're getting more precipitation. But that also impacts our infrastructure, our power grid. So we're seeing folks who are without electricity longer, because of this, which means that people, who have medical devices, are in harm's way because of that, people, who are already poor working class, who are losing their groceries, and groceries aren't cheap. Every time a huge storm comes and knocks the power out, that means that some family is losing their food, some family is losing access to their cell phones and they can't work at home in the middle of a pandemic.
Those are how those things are happening. We saw a hurricane just hit New York and the East Coast, and I know people personally who are still recovering from floods. And that also goes hand in hand with overdevelopment. So here in the Mon Valley, Turtle Creek, communities like that, we see increased flooding, even as we're putting money into infrastructure, because the reality is, as these storms intensifies, they're intensifying at the same rate as overdevelopment. So when they built new malls, when they built new parking lots, we're taking out trees, thousands and thousands of trees, that help with stormwater runoff, which means that the water, that's coming from this larger rain activity, has nowhere to go. There is no grass. There is no soil to absorb it into. It's rolling off of concrete, and it rolling straight down in the valleys. And it's flooding these folks home, so they're losing, every year, their furnaces, their washers and dryers. Their basements are flooding. They got mold in their houses. So that's the way that it happens at the local level. So we see that every year. And we're seeing it increasingly. So that's just one way and just one kind of manifestation of the climate crisis here.
Jamen Thurmond (00:55:45):
And so to follow up then, what policies or other steps do you think are important for our regional and state government to take to mitigate climate change?
Summer Lee (00:55:56):
The reality is that it doesn't just have to be our regional and our state government. There has to be coordination at all levels. So it has to coordinate from the hyper local level to your borough councils, your school boards and the decisions that they have to make, all the way up to the federal level. That's why you're hearing more federal legislators and candidates talk about a Green New Deal. How do we incentivize new job training? How do we incentivize transitioning from oil and gas from polluting industries into solar energy, into renewable energy, and ensure that there are family-sustainable labor union jobs. That is the critical piece, because the hesitancy that we're seeing, it's the same thing that we saw three, four decades ago here in Braddock, when our steel mills were being threatened with closing. Those were union jobs. Those were well-paying jobs with protections, with worker rights, with benefits.
And when those jobs transitioned out of here, the workers then had to figure out, "Do we leave this region that we've built up, this home that we've created for us? Do we have to go to other places, other towns, other cities to get jobs that are comparable for us, so that we can still take care of our families?" We are struggling, and we're kind of rebuilding from that now. So right now, a Green New Deal at the federal and the state level means that we're looking now to that future. How do we ensure that the people who are working in those industries, in oil and gas industries, the building trades, how do we ensure that they're not being left behind, instead that they're prioritized as we are transitioning, and that we're working with them directly so that they know this is not a threat. We are not trying to threaten their livelihood, but instead what we're trying to do is to fend off the inevitable, to prepare them for the inevitable, that this is an unsustainable industry, and we are going to have to transition.
Economies always change, but how are we ensuring that our government is there to protect them on the front end and the back end? So that's what the Green New Deal is, protecting them on the front end, preparing them for the back end. At the state level, how are we ensuring that we're allocating money to the DEP, that we're allocating money and changing the funding scheme for schools? People don't see the connection between our funding scheme for schools and the environmental policies that we have to then make. But that all comes down to how we are distributing money. For instance, in Pennsylvania, we had, I believe, $7 billion from the American Cares Act that came down from the federal government. That was a surplus that we refused to spend. That money could have went to clearing asbestos and lead from our schools. It could have went to fully funding our our schools, so that our local school districts, like Woodland Hills or Steel Valley, no longer have to make the decision between a fracking well, the refinery, the distribution center, and their kids having books, their kids having transportation, their kids having a healthy lunch. Those things help. So those are all the things that we need. That's why I say we need to have that coordination at every level of government.
Jamen Thurmond (00:58:54):
So you spoke on this inevitable transition. So with the potential for certain solutions causing certain groups to be left out in the rain, so to speak, can you talk about potential solutions that simultaneously address climate change and climate injustice?
Summer Lee (00:59:09):
Certainly. I always like to use the term environmental racism. And I think that that is the one term that is a connection to our movement, because even if we're talking about environmental justice, if we forget that racial part of it, if we forget the racial capitalism that contributes to our climate catastrophe, then we're just missing such an important link. So yes, part of making sure that communities aren't left behind the same communities that always are, that means that we have to understand the racial capitalism of it. That means that we have to address capitalism. We have to address the economy. We have to address where money goes, how it's distributed, equitable resources, equitable distribution of resources. Even as we're talking about the allocation of money, when we think about even the Green New Deal, that obviously comes from the original New Deal. And that was an infrastructure package that was putting money into infrastructure, which means that created new jobs. They were local jobs.
And then it also created a safe environment. So even as we're retrofitting housing, or as we're taking houses as people are aging in place, and we're making sure that they're able to live comfortably with dignity in their homes, those are jobs. And those are well paid jobs with unions that can help us to transition. As we're creating solar farms in communities, like Braddock, where we have blight. I've seen other communities do it, where they took lots where they just had either a fire or blighted properties, where they were able to raze those properties, and instead in this place put solar farms and community and community farms, which now we're feeding folks. And we're creating a renewable energy source that is in existence for the community, when they have those disasters. When Duquesne Light goes off the grid, that community now has a backup plan.
And that's how we make sure that we're keeping these communities in the loop, that we're not leaving people behind. As we're talking about union jobs and Black and brown people, we're going into those very high schools that are under resourced and making sure that they're getting access to the training that they need, so that they can get into the trades, making sure that they have the education that they need, so that they're ready for either college or career. Those are parts of the things that are going to help. So it feels like all the solutions are big and out of reach, but the reality is that small things, small steps, all contribute. The key is making sure that everything that we do is sustainable, everything that we do is intentional. And those baby steps will get us and build us up to that Green New Deal, because it's not just the big package. It's the little things that we do every single day that make us more green, makes us more sustainable.
Jamen Thurmond (01:01:50):
I love that. I love that, so a bigger step on along the way. So how important is renewable energy in the fight against climate change?
Summer Lee (01:01:58):
Oh, we touched on that, right?
Jamen Thurmond (01:02:00):
Summer Lee (01:02:00):
It's incredibly important. It's so important that the United States, as a global leader, that we are leading the way in ensuring that we are creating the economies of the future, and economies of the future that are not also negatively impacting the Global South, negatively impacting those nations that we consider developing, that we've already colonized and all those things. That's neither here nor there. I had to slide that in there, because it goes together. The very same countries that are still reeling from colonization, from imperialism, are the same countries that are now being impacted by climate change. The same populations of people that are now being created as climate refugees, but who can't find a home in a country like ours, because of our immigration policies. That goes hand in hand.
So as we're talking about renewable energies and creating those economies of the future, we're talking about how do we ensure that our country leads the way with a living wage? And as we're creating those jobs where there is a living wage, where there are union protections, now we're talking about how do we get into having healthcare for all and how do we talk about having a free education system? I hate to belabor the point, but that's what we mean by these things are all interconnected. So yes, it's integral that we transition, but it is integral that we do that with the people who are going to be most impacted. And those are different demographics of people. They are the Black and brown and the poor people and those communities that have had to live side by side with environmental pollutants. They're the workers, the workers who are in trades, the workers who work in oil and gas. Those aren't the bosses. Those are people who are just trying to feed their families. And we have to ensure that they're in the front lines to get that training for those new industries and that they're leading the way.
And that's a new frontier, because as we create these new renewable energy jobs, we're now also expanding our labor movement, so that we are bringing in new people into it. And the more robust a labor movement we have, the more robust worker protections we have, and the more likely we are to win on those, that environmental protection that we need, that environmental policy, but also that education policy, that healthcare policy, and all of those things that will then take us into the industries and the economies of the future.
Jamen Thurmond (01:04:15):
Awesome. Awesome. So what would this look like? What would a transition to 100% renewable energy look like, first in Pennsylvania, then in Pittsburgh, then in Braddock?
Summer Lee (01:04:26):
Yeah. So Pennsylvania is going to be a really important state, as we're talking about the transition to 100% renewable. As I said, we're one of the five top states for oil and gas industry, which means that so much of our revenue comes from it. But it also isn't even still the biggest source of our energy. We still have a robust economy of solar energy, of renewable energy. So part of this is going to be a cultural shift. Part of it's going to be a mental shift, in the way that we consider and value jobs. Which jobs are valuable? How do we determine and what does the market determine as a job that pays well? So that's a cultural shift for us in Pennsylvania.
A fracking moratorium, a ban on fracking, if we get that here, that's going to be integral, because it'll lead the way for other states to be able to transition. Now, it's easy for a New York to do that. New York doesn't have the same kind of oil and gas industry that we do here. But ours is that industry that is impacting all of our region. So we do need to make that transition. So that's something that we have to work out at the state level in Pennsylvania. The way that we do that is by, broken record, working with our labor movement, working with the building trades, ensuring that they are a part of this process, a part of this transition, that they feel comfortable with transition, but also that they understand the urgency in that transition. Because even as we kind of give them that deference and make sure that they are prioritized, we still have an urgency. And we still have to make sure that they understand that their jobs, while they feed their family, it also takes from another family. So how do we balance that?
So as we trickle down from the state level to the regional level, joining RGGI, things like that, going down to the local level in Braddock, that's funding. So now we even may have to talk about regionalization, because as we have these small communities that are struggling financially, economically... We have communities that in the past, like Braddock, were robust, and we had diverse industry here from... We had malls and the mills and retail. All of that you can get here in your home community. You didn't have to travel. There were no big box stores to compete. But that's no longer the case here. So as our kind of economy struggle in these communities, these are communities that are economic distress, but they're in clusters. So even as we have one, two, three economically distressed communities around us, you go five miles out, and then you also have an affluent suburb sitting right next to it, and then another one sitting right next to it.
So what does regionalization look like? What does it look like to join resources, whether it's EMS or fire or police, so that we are ensuring that these communities are now no longer struggling, so they don't have to make those desperate decisions, because of the need for certain jobs, because of the need for certain economies? That's how we can help take the load off of these local communities. Those are difficult conversations, because everybody has their fiefdom. But those are conversations that we're going to have to make going into the future, if we are going to do something about our environmental policy, our environmental kind of crisis here in the community that has, on any given day, the worst air quality in the nation.
Michael Pisano (01:07:52):
The list of carcinogenic and nerve damaging and asthma causing chemicals emitted from the steel works is too long to list. But I encourage you to visit toxicten.org, that's T-O-X-I-C-T-E-N dot O-R-G, to learn more about what people in Pittsburgh are breathing every day. Now, you might be thinking, how is it legal for industries to pump carcinogenic nerve-damaging and asthma-causing chemicals into the air that we breathe? The answer is that it isn't. Here in the United States, the Clean Air Act regulates air pollution from industry and transportation tech, and it's actually been super helpful and super effective. American Air Quality as a whole is way better than it was when the Clean Air Act was first passed in 1970. The Clean Air Act also allows citizens to bring legal suits against polluters, which has been a great and helpful tool for communities to stand up for their rights.
And US Steel, they violate the Clean Air Act all the time. For example, between 2012 to 2015, there were 6,700 air permit violations reported for the Clairton Coke Works alone. That's an average of more than four violations a day. Just this past March, March, 2022, US Steel was ordered to pay a $4.5 million fine for violations in Clairton, and then in May they paid $1.5 million for violations in Braddock. They pay fines all the time. Speaking of pay, US Steel CEO earned $19 million in 2021. 2021 was a great year for that guy, but also for US Steel as a company. They earned a record $ 4.6 billion. And you might be saying, "Wow, what a cool amount of prosperity to be bringing to this community." But sadly, not a lot of that wealth seems to stick around.
After earning that $4.5 billion last year, US Steel received a $21-million refund on their state and local taxes. They paid just one million in federal taxes, and they paid 190 million in foreign taxes. That's right. US Steel paid most of its taxes abroad. Anyway, all of this is to say that US Steel has the resources to make change. There is absolutely nothing stopping them from updating the way that they make steel to be less toxic. There's nothing stopping them from investing in clean energy to power their facilities and the Mon Valley communities that they've polluted for a hundred plus years. But when industries like US Steel choose to pay fines and executive bonuses, instead of investing in ways to lessen their impact, I think it sends a clear message, a sad message. These companies don't care about their workers or their neighbors. They're stuck in an old mindset about progress and prosperity. And I think it blinds them to the human suffering that they cause and to the very possible better world that they could be instrumental in creating.
If we can let go of these old stories about progress and the price of progress, we could achieve so much together. We can invest our time, our labor, and our natural resources in real prosperity, in work that simultaneously lightens the burden on our planet, prepares us for climate change and makes society better for everyone. If we stop developing for the sake of development and growth, then we can develop for human connection, for human survival, for non-human survival, and in so doing, prioritize a future that we actually would like to live in.
Jamen Thurmond (01:11:41):
So how will climate change impact how we pursue happiness?
Summer Lee (01:11:46):
Happiness? Wow, that's a really deep question. It's like one of those questions that forces you into introspection. I would say that, when you think about climate change and you think about joy and happiness and peace and freedom and all those things that we need-
Some freedom and all those things that we need. This is what you experience when you come to a community like this. These are people who are sickened. They've been poisoned because of industry, which means that we have higher hospital bills, chronic illnesses. When your kid has chronic asthma, how happy can that child be? How expansive is their life as their childhood? But we also know how that impacts other parts of their life. So when your kid is sick, we know that a child who misses school for whatever reason it may be, if they miss school because they have asthma, they have to go to the hospital or cancer and have to go to the hospital. They're still missing school, and they're still more likely to be funneled into the school to prison pipeline, which means that that kind of stymies their outcomes for their entire life.So as we're talking about happiness, we're talking about access to a family sustaining job as they grow up, right? We're talking about their parents having safe jobs that also have worker protections so that they're not working two, three jobs and missing their kids' football games. Those are the small quality of life things that we see in communities like that. If you don't have a living wage job, then you can't go to the school board meeting, you know, you can't join the borough council. You can't go to the football game or the dance recital, right? That's happiness. That's the cost that we pay for jobs in an industry that pays well, or at least that we believe pays well, right? So the question is, what is that worth? What does our happiness, what does our joy cost us? Right? So the climate crisis that leads directly to our way of living, which means it goes directly to our happiness, our joy.
Jamen Thurmond (01:13:43):
Another little bit of an introspective question. So amidst often grim and depressing news about climate change and injustice, what keeps you going personally and gives you hope for the future of life on our planet?
Summer Lee (01:13:56):
Because we only have one direction to go in, and that forces you to really keep your eyes on the goal. I think the thing that encourages me the most is that I know that the generations after me, even my generations or I am a millennial, but the generations that come after me, we are increasingly global minded. We are increasingly kind of collectivist. We believe in my neighbor's happiness and my happiness protecting each other. We believe in equity and justice, and this generation and these generations are increasingly fierce and outspoken and confident. So the hope that I have is that as we are looking to dismantle kind of oppressive systems, they understand the urgency behind that like none other, because more than any generation, my generation and the generations after us have experienced the devastation that can come from unfettered capitalism, the devastation that can come from racism and sexism and homophobia.
We understand how those things lead directly to our climate crisis, and back to that intersectionality, that interconnectedness, we understand that's a target that means to solve it all. So I have so much hope that this next generation's going to come in fierce, right? Ready to come change laws, change systems, ready to come in and save the environment, which is a shame because it shouldn't be on the folks who are most impacted to change the world, to change the environment.
But I think it's increasingly clear that the folks who have the power to do it now have abdicated their responsibility. They will not do it. We will not see it come from them. So that hope really is channeling our energy into action. And the action is who do we need to displace? Who do we need to move out of the way so that we can do what we need to do? And I stay laser focused on that. So whether that's electorally, right, whether that's systems based and focusing on what systems needs to be overthrown, that is it, it's a channeling of the energy and it's a focus that really removes all of the distraction. So that's what I wake up every single day ready to do.
Jamen Thurmond (01:16:01):
Love that. I love that. Looking ahead, scientists assert that we have something like six years left to take decisive action on climate change. So how would you like to see that manifest for yourself and fellow policy makers in PA?
Summer Lee (01:16:16):
Yeah, it's like the doomsday clock. That's when we kind of go back, fall back into the hopelessness, because the reality is that our climate, our environment, our earth has really fallen victim to a culture war that is steam rollering through our culture, and that is, a moving train is so hard to stop. So I don't know that the answer is going to come from government, or at least not initially. I think that the answer is going to come from a mass mobilization of people. I think it's going to come from organizing. I think it's going to come from that activism and the pressure that everyday people are going to put on those government officials. I think that's the only way.
I don't think that we can rely, or that we can hope that the folks who control the levers of power right now, the folks who can run a bill, the folks who can write a bill, the folks who can vote up and down, the folks who can appropriate funding somewhere, I think it's very clear that they're not going to do that without us moving them. So I think that the answer is not there. The answer is right here on the streets. The answer is in Braddock, the answer into Mon Valley, the answer is in Pittsburgh, right? In Pennsylvania. That's where the answer is. And that can feel really intimidating because we've been indoctrinated with this belief that government will fix things, that it's the government's job to fix things. That was always the problem to begin with, right? Over relying on the elected and absolving ourselves of the power and really handing over the power that we have in our collective and the collective we.
So right now, the collective we is going to save us. So the collective we must decide what do we do with these six years, not six years? What do we do with today? What do we do tomorrow, this year, this election cycle, right? The collective we has to decide that, we have to rise up and really change the ties of that culture war. So I'd be very interested to see how the people of Pennsylvania react knowing what we know. You can't unknow, it's not like we don't know that that Darryl met Kaz and yeah, I'm going to call him out by name, that Darryl met Kaz with the chair of ERE. You know that Brian Cutler, who is the speaker of the house. It's not that we don't know that they won't advance a bill that talks about, that addresses climate change. We know that already. The question is what do we do with it?
Jamen Thurmond (01:18:32):
Awesome, awesome. So we'll leave that where it lies for a moment. And I love the energy. I love the accountability. I love putting that out there.
Michael Pisano (01:18:45):
I have a couple of questions that I wrote on my hand. Do you mind? Michael here, yes that is me jumping in to ask Summer a few questions. I was hanging out in the background of this interview taking notes on my hand because I forgot to bring a notebook. Do you want to-
Jamen Thurmond (01:18:58):
No, go ahead. I'm not going to read off your hand.
Michael Pisano (01:19:01):
You sure you can't? This makes perfect sense to me.
Jamen Thurmond (01:19:04):
I mean I can, but yeah go ahead, it's your notes.
Michael Pisano (01:19:06):
A big thing that we're trying to put into the whole series is the power of collective action, right? This isn't about reusable straws, it's about collective action. Can you just speak to the power of that generally and then we'll maybe zero in a little.
Summer Lee (01:19:19):
My new motto is, it's not even a motto, it's like literally the way I live my life, my true belief system is that I believe less in the power of me and more in the power of we, right? There is power in collective movement and the collective we right? And that's the only place that we're going to have our power, that we're going to be able to do and move the mountains that we need to move. We only do that as we connect with one another, right? As we are in solidarity and centering the most impacted, the most marginalized as we are decentering ourselves in those spaces where we are not most impacted. That's what we mean and that's what we need to actually move mountains. Whether it's dismantling oppressive systems, whether it's getting new electives in or taking on those people, they are not more powerful than us as we are if we're together.
If we are in solidarity, and I use solidarity and not unity for a reason, because solidarity implies that we are centering the marginalized, right? Unity sometimes means that we're erasing, unity without justice means that we're just erasing people. So don't erase, right. Demand justice, right? Speak up where you see it. Acknowledge that if you are not, even if you are not the system, even if you are not a racist, even if you are not a sexist, the reality is that in a racial capitalized system, if you are white, you benefit inherently from the system. You are inherent beneficiary of it, and I think the most important thing to recognize is that you cannot disavow that benefit, right? You can't throw it away. You can't disclaim it, can't refuse it, can't deny it. The only way that you can get rid of that inherent benefit, like that inherent benefit is to dismantle that system. So find out where you are and what tool you have to dismantle and make sure you're using it right. That's how you contribute to the collective we.
Michael Pisano (01:21:12):
Hell yes. Excellent. I think the political spectrum in PA is broad. You already spoke to some of the elected officials who are resistant to even climate change as a concept. Ridiculous. However, not so interested in them right now. I'm interested in people, if we're talking about collective action, working together, bringing as many people to the fight as possible, Do you have any words of wisdom about how to connect with folks who are maybe not there yet who need some pulling?
Summer Lee (01:21:40):
I think that there's one principle that we have to live by if you are in this fight. If you're in this fight for our climate, if you are in this fight for racial justice, if you're in this fight for poor and working class people, we have to give people an opt-in and not an opt-out. That has to be our base, opt in, not opt out, which means that we know that there are people who are not all the way where we are. The reality is that you know more today than you know yesterday, you are going to know more tomorrow than you know today, which means that don't judge somebody because they're not where you are today. Because you got to remember that you weren't there at some point too, which means give grace.
You'd know the difference between somebody who is your enemy, somebody who hates you, somebody who wants to cause harm to you. It's okay to cut them off. There's no problem with that. But know the difference between that person who is harmful and that person who is maybe ignorant to what we know, to the way that we move now to our needs. And you have to be discerning in that sense. So that's why I say an opt-in, right? Because when you give people an opt-in, you give them space, you give them space to learn, you give them space to grow, you give them space to even mess up because all of us, each of us are going to mess up in our fight. We are taking on a big fight. We're trying to save the earth. We are taking on a big fight. We are going to have missteps. We are going to go in the wrong direction sometimes. We're going to have to correct course. The same grace that you're going to give yourself, knowing your own intentions, we have to extend to those people who could be allies. So that's why I say opt in not opt out, because too often what we do is we are always looking for an opt out. You didn't say that right, you must go right, You didn't come correct, you must go. But when we come with grace and truth, we give room for growth, so.
Michael Pisano (01:23:23):
I love that, and I love that as a definition for grace too. It doesn't have to be perfect. It's not this flowing ease with which you move. No. The way that you accept and empathize. Just love that. Okay. That's all my hand really has to say I think. Thank you, David. Thank you Summer for letting me hop in for a second. David, now back to you. To close out the interview.
Jamen Thurmond (01:23:46):
Tell us about a hopeful future for Braddock and what would you like to see happen in this community?
Summer Lee (01:23:50):
Yeah. My hope for Braddock is that the people who lived here, who have been here, who've weathered the storm, I want to see them have agency over their own community. That is my biggest hope. I think that there are enough politicians, there are enough local leaders, developers, gatekeepers, who are coming in with a vision for this town, but not often enough is the vision driven by the folks who are actually here. Cause I want to see what they want. I want it to go in that direction. As long as it's a sustainable direction, which I trust that it will be right, I want to see them lead the redevelopment. I want to see when as new businesses and restaurants crop up as they are, I want that money and those opportunities to go to them first. Not to the outside guy who already has seven different ventures, business ventures.
I want it to go to the community member, to the cousin, to the neighbor who we all know can cook, who we all know can paint, who we all know can build, but just doesn't have the same access to capital, to opportunity. That's what I want to see for this community. There's so much creativity here. There's so much perseverance here, and if they were given the tools to build themselves and taught how to build instead of left to rely on other people coming to build, right? We'd have a different community. So that's my hope for Braddock. As people come here in this community, I hope that they respect the culture of it. I hope that they respect the leadership and the traditions of it. I hope that even as new people come in, because I don't think that the plan is to shut new people out, but it's to not push old folks out.
I hope that they come in and they blend in with the folks who are here. I hope that they take up the man tool of activism that lives here. So that's my hope for the future of Braddock. I want to see it be a self-contained community and not just Braddock. I want to see it with the greater Mon Valley. I want to see the Mon Valley be a self-contained community where the people don't have to go out of the community to find good jobs. They don't have to go out of the community to see beauty, to have a park, to have clarity, happiness. I want to see that right here, and it can be grown here. I know that it can. So that's my hope for it.
Jamen Thurmond (01:26:01):
I love that. That's absolutely beautiful. So how could a viewer at the museum possibly help with those community initiatives or to otherwise bring about that hopeful future?
Summer Lee (01:26:13):
It depends. Who are you, right? Who are you and what do you do? Are you somebody who has money? Are you a foundation? Are you a foundation in Pittsburgh? You know how you can help? You can contribute to the Bright at Carnegie Library. That is a community centered place that serves the needs directly of this community. We don't need any more research. We need to build out that community center so that the kids have a place to go, so that there are computers and job center training that they can go right there to do it. We already have everything that we need in that space. We just need that space to grow. We need that space to have the capacity to service all right, So that's one way that you can help Braddock. Are you an environmental advocate? Then we need you to plug in with the North Braddock residents for our future.
We need you to plug in with the other activists and community led folks who have been leading the charge to hold industry accountable, to hold government accountable. Are you just a regular person who has a restaurant and want to come here and move here? We need you to connect with the people who are already here. We need you to do some introspection and be honest with yourself about are you taking an opportunity from someone else or are you creating an opportunity for someone else? Right? I don't know the answer, but you might. That's how you can help Braddock.
Jamen Thurmond (01:27:26):
Awesome. And just to round out, to close everything, if someone wanted to get into the type of work that you do, where would you advise that they start?
Summer Lee (01:27:34):
Do you want to be a local official or a state rep? I would, if you are someone who is like progressive and into a green new deal or Medicare for all or education, making sure that we're keeping people housed, making sure that we're keeping people fed, right? I'd say you can start with Unite. That's the pack and the organization that we have that does elections. I say that you should get to a local campaign and volunteer on that campaign. That's the way that you meet people. You'll knock on doors. You'll learn how to talk to your neighbors. You'll learn how to listen to them, how to take their needs and connect them to a solution. That's a great way of doing that. Always working in the campaign. If you're into that right, or just finding what your passion is.
Is your passion more education based? Then maybe go to the school board, right. Is your passion policing and education in prisons? Then go to the state, right. There are different places and different outlets for your passion. You don't have to adapt your passion. You just have to find it and find out where it channels and where it funnels into.
Michael Pisano (01:28:46):
Many thanks to Summer Lee for sharing her time and for the many good reasons to stay hopeful this week. If you want to join her in fearlessly fighting for an equitable and excellent future, go to uniteforpa.com. That's uniteforpa. com. You could also look up North Braddock residents for our future, or the Breathe Project, or Gasp, which is the group against smog and pollution, to see what kind of help they all need protecting Pittsburgh's people. My gratitude to David Kelly and Damon Thurmond for co-hosting and collaborating. They'll be back on the show again soon to talk about Hazelwood, another part of the Mon Valley with an industrial past and what we hope is an inspiring future. Thanks also to Taijii Nelson, Nicole Heller, Bonnie McGill, Sierra Christ, and Sloane McCrae at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Special special thanks to my partner Mackenzie Kimmel, who played the part of zillions of precambrian anaerobic organisms going extinct during the oxygen revolution. Mackenzie, I love you. You thank you for sharing your talents. The music in today's episode was made by my old friend, Amos Levy, also known as DJ Thermos. He also made lots of the music for the We Are Nature Companion video series about climate action and rural Pennsylvania. You can find a link to those videos in the show notes.
Just a quick disclaimer here. You've heard many opinions today. You've heard Representative Lee, David, Damon, and myself. None of these opinions are the Carnegie Museum of Natural Histories official point of view. However, what I do think I can safely say is that you should indeed go and vote.
Until next time, here's some words to help you dream a better future for wherever you live. We must commit to standards of ecological equity and climate justice and human rights as a base standard, a fundamental starting point for where our new society is to go. All of this requires us to recognize a power greater than ourselves and a life longer than the ones we will live. It requires us to believe in the things that we are privileged enough not to have to see. We must honor the rights of nature. We must advance human rights for all. We must transform from a disposable single use individual society into one that sees our collective long term humanity, or else we will not make it. We must see that even the best of us are entangled in an unjust system, and we must acknowledge that your survival requires us to figure out how to reach a shared liberation together.
The good news is that we come from powerful people. We come from those who have in one way or another, survived. This is reason enough to fight and take it from your South Louisiana friend. Those hardest fights are the ones to celebrate. Let's choose to make this next phase of our planetary existence beautiful. And while we're at it, let's make it just and fair for everyone. That was Colette Pichon Battle from her essay and offering from the Bayou. I've been your host, Michael Pisano. Thanks for listening.