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A Look at Pittsburgh’s First Environmental Advocacy Group

By Hannah Walden:

For the majority of her time at the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), Suzanne Seppi has been dedicated to fighting for clean air and educating the community on pollution. 

Chelsea Hilty has spent her college career and the years following on educating the public on the effects of air pollution and what individual people can do to make their air quality better. 

John Baillie is a senior attorney with GASP who does more than regulate construction and factory permits, he fights to hold companies and industries accountable for their actions when they overstep their limits put upon them by the County Health Department or the state Department of Environmental Protection. 

“Clairton has changed dramatically since when I was a kid,” a former Clariton resident and current U.S Steel corporate management support employee, who wants to remain anonymous, said. “Up until the early 1980s, Clairton was a vibrant multiethnic community with a vibrant central business center. Everything started to change in the 1970s.”

GASP was founded in 1969 and has been “Fighting to improve air quality for over 50 years,” according to their website. Viewing themselves as a group of diligent watchdogs, educators, litigators and policy-makers on many environmental issues throughout their history, they have been focused on cleaning and bettering air quality in the Pittsburgh region. 

GASP has led the Allegheny County Partnership to reduce diesel pollution, as well as getting Pittsburgh Public Schools to include requirements for cleaner buses in their school bus contracts and in working with the City and Urban Redevelopment Authority to enact clean construction legislation.

“Going back to my early years, and even as we progressed into the ‘90s, we only had a part-time person to take care of the basics, the rest of it was a volunteer effort,” Seppi said of her early experience at GASP in a phone interview. “Back when we began, there were not as many environmental groups, so GASP was looked to as leadership. Now, we have more groups that are offering their leadership and work, so we have a much more diverse environmental leadership.”

From Seppi’s standpoint, she was the one who started GASP’s fight against hydrogen sulfide, leading the group to push for the standard with both the Board of Health and the County Health Department.

“I think that we’ve really made some progress,” Seppi said. “If we can assist in cleaning up hydrogen sulfide, other chemicals that are in the air, that are toxic [and not just extremely unpleasent], will be cleaned up as well.” 

GASP has been fighting to rid Pittsburgh’s air of visible and invisible pollutants since its inception. Now that many of Pittsburgh’s visible pollutions are being addressed, the focus can be shifted towards invisible pollutants like hydrogen sulfide.

“For many years we have helped to led the Allegheny County Partnership to reduce diesel pollution, which helped to push Pittsburgh Public Schools to clean up their school buses, helped pushed for clean construction policy at the city level, worked with a number of school districts and municipalities to try and help them secure funding so they can retrofit [and] clean up their diesel vehicles or equipment,” GASP’s Executive Director Rachel Filippini said in a phone interview. 

Since the first days of GASP, the organization has been hard at work at the forefront of legislative changes for environmental standards. 

This work includes the Clean Air Act of 1970 where they litigated in federal district court to require Allegheny County to adopt emissions regulations of hazardous air pollutants and aim to protect public health and welfare, the Athletes United for Healthy Air Campaign which educates athletes about air quality, steps to reduce exposure and how to advocate for healthy air; and cooperating with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the 1980s to gain enforcement of air quality standards at U.S Steel and coke production facilities such as the Clairton Coke Works.

While these quality standards were to improve the environment, it had some economic drawbacks, as seen by this former Clairton native. 

“Unfortunately, many of the industrial facilities that once dominated the area started closing or significantly cut back operations starting in the mid-1970s to early 1980s, resulting in significant and progressive economic damage to many of the communities in which they served,” he said.

As someone who grew up in Clairton and lived there from the early 1960s to the early 1990s, a current employee of U.S Steel remembers the shift in the quality of life in Clariton during his childhood.

“I first noticed a change in the air quality in the early to mid-1970s followed by a change in the water quality in the Monongahela River in the mid to late 1970s,” he said. “Over the past decade or so, I would say that the environment has remained [the] status quo. The improving environment coincided with [the] passage and strengthening of the Clean Air and Water Acts by the federal government.”

Through his employment at U.S. Steel and his childhood rooted deep into Clairton’s soil, he argues for both sides, protection for the environment and protections for local communities and company employees against unfair competition.

The unfair competition comes from varying environmental regulations from country to country. Due to this factor, he believes that if society in the United States doesn’t find a way to balance allowing companies like U.S. Steel to make the investments needed to improve their operations in a manner that protects the environment while achieving reasonable returns on investments to their stakeholders, that include local communities, employees and stockholders.

“Companies like U.S. Steel strive to comply and even exceed compliance with all regulatory requirements,” he said. “However, companies must also compete in a world economy that demands the lowest costs and prices of commodities.”

While Baillie finds that most companies try and succeed in complying with regulations, other companies such as the Clairton Coke Works have been defiant when it comes to change and regulation.

”The Coke Works always has trouble because it is a hard process to control, even when they try their best they still run into problems,” Baillie said in a phone interview. “Natural gas drillers often have problems, because there are so many of them, they are trying different things and the rules that they are subject to aren’t always clear and so sometimes they will not put processes in place to make sure that they are complying to the rules that they are subject to.”

GASP has been fighting against local coke plants since 1998 when they filed sued Shenango Inc. for its long-standing air quality infractions at its Neville Island coke plant. This was preempted by a successful suit on the same issue by the EPA, resulting in substantial financial penalties and remedial actions being imposed on Shenango, which eventually closed in January 2016.

“By now, most industrial plants, their compliance records are pretty good,” Bailie said. “Most of the compliance requirements that they are subject to came down as a result of the Clean Air Act that [was] made in 1990. During the 90s and early 2000s, a lot of places had trouble complying with them but by now they have worked out how they are going to comply and they are on a much better path than they were 20 years ago.”

One of Baillie’s biggest current projects is to help create new regulations for the Clairton Coke Works, as the surrounding communities are “often subjected to air that is polluted to a level that is much greater than it should be under the existing laws,” Baillie said. “The new regulations hopefully will provide the people who live there some relief from the pollution that they suffer from now.”

Baillie sits on a sub-committee of the Allegheny Health Department called the Regulation Sub-Committee. According to him, when the department drafts a new set of regulations, he is one of the first people to review it. He and other folks who represent other environmental groups, free-industry and the government have the opportunity to hear different opinions about propositions before they go too far down the legislative path and they run into an issue.

“A topic consuming many environmental groups is the air pollution in the Mon Valley,” Seppi explained. “That has been a heavy topic for a lot of groups and it really takes a lot of work and I think we are making some progress there. The people in the Mon Valley are really suffering [from] air pollution in particular, and the real focus for a lot of people.” 

Recently, on Nov. 6, 2019, GASP help a press conference at the City-County Building to tell the Allegheny County Health Department that “it is time to strengthen our local coke over regulations” when it comes to the ongoing violations of the hydrogen sulfide standard. Speakers consisted of local Pittsburgh neighborhood residents, and GASP Executive Director Filippini. During the press conference, GASP presented its associated petition with nearly 650 signatures to the Allegheny County Board of Health, prior to the Board’s meeting the same day. The results of the petition to the Allegheny County Board of Health have not been disclosed at the time of publication. 

“[Hydrogen sulfide] is one of the bad odors we get around here, we get a lot of complaints about odors going into the Health Department,” Seppi said. “It goes beyond what might be affecting your health, which is most important; [it is one of] the most notable of our odors.”

Seppi joined GASP about 40 years ago when she moved to Pittsburgh after graduating from Penn State. After growing up in central PA, the shock of Pittsburgh’s air pollution upset her enough to get involved in changing it.

Since then, she and the other members of GASP have dedicated a lot of time and effort in changing the legislation to tighten environmental regulations and educate the community on air pollution and its effects on public health.

In order to inform viewers of the contributing major sources of air pollution in the area, GASP has created the Air Permits Clearinghouse interactive map. The map lists all major and synthetic minor facilities counties in Southwestern PA. Clicking on a facility will bring up their latest permits, letting people learn what that facility does and the types and amounts of pollutants they are allowed to emit. 

The Title V of the Clean Air Act requires “Major Sources” of air pollution to obtain operating permits from the EPA or a state/local agency that the EPA has authorized to issue permits. Major Sources within Allegheny County are permitted by the County Health Department while surrounding counties are permitted by the state Department of Environmental Protection. 

Another large part of GASP’s work is educating the public through events and information provided online.
Hilty joined GASP about three years ago as its education and events coordinator. After studying environmental studies at the University of Pittsburgh and held multiple part-time and internship positions at numerous nonprofits and fellowships, she knew where she wanted to leave her mark next. 

During her time in college, Hilty held internships at the Frick Environmental Center running their education program, multiple summer camps and other events; part-time work at the Environmental Charter school running an after school program, a position at the Carnegie Science Center running an after school program and an SCA fellowship at Tree Pittsburgh, educating people on the impact trees can make on air quality, she knew that an opening at GASP was the next opportunity she wanted to pursue. 

“My fellowship at Tree Pittsburgh was about trees and air quality, and I had learned so much about [the] air quality in Pittsburgh and I was doing all kinds of education on air quality, so it just felt like a very normal transition into this job,” Hilty said in a phone interview. 

Currently, Hilty is planning Making the Connections, an event where health and academic professionals talk to the public about their research and how it relates air quality to health issues.

“I think that education, especially around air quality, is really important because people can’t protect their health if they don’t know how,” Hilty said. “They can’t be an advocate for air quality if they don’t even realize it’s a problem or they don’t know what steps to take or what to do. I think that education is very important because no problems will be solved if you don’t understand it.”

Over its first 51 years, GASP has pushed for and made the changes needed to better Pittsburgh’s air. However, they are far from finished.
Going forward, GASP will continue to educate the public on the effects of air pollution on public health, push for legislation to tighten regulations on the major sources of air pollution in the region and will continue to serve the region as a watchdog in order to hold the companies and industries accountable for going beyond their legal limits and standards.

“I’ve been happy to be in the fight, there’s still much to be done and the more we know about air pollution, the more we realize how unhealthy it is,” Seppi said, reflecting on her time being a part of the fight for clean air in Pittsburgh. “I think there is much to be done and I’m happy to be a part of it and to be a part of GASP.” 

This story was last updated on April 15, 2020.

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