Pittsburgh-area children living near steel mills, power plants and other large sources of pollution had “nearly triple” the national rate of childhood asthma, according to a new peer-reviewed study.
The researchers studied over 1,200 school-age students between 2014 and 2016 in Allegheny County who lived and went to school close to large sources of pollution, like industrial sites or highways. These communities were disproportionately minority and low-income.
“We actually found an alarming prevalence of asthma,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Deborah Gentile, the medical director of Allergy and Asthma Wellness Centers. The study found children in these schools had a 22.5 percent asthma rate, nearly triple the nationwide average of 8.3 percent. Allegheny County’s overall child asthma rate is 11 percent.
The group monitored air pollution levels near the schools, and found a correlation between high levels of particulate matter — tiny particles that can slip into narrow breathing passages — and asthma rates.
“The asthma prevalence as well as the severity is being driven in some cases by their exposure to the pollution,” Gentile said. “We found an alarming number of kids exposed to high levels of particulate matter.”
Overall, 38 percent of students lived in areas with higher levels of particulate matter than the USEPA’s standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter, and 70 percent lived in areas with levels above the World Health Organization’s threshold of 10 micrograms per cubic meter.
The schools were located near US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works and Edgar Thomson Works, Cheswick Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant, DTE Energy’s now-demolished Shenango Coke Works, and the Monroeville junction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
The study, published in the Journal of Asthma, received funding from The Heinz Endowments, which also funds The Allegheny Front.
Jonathan Buonocore, a research scientist at the Center for Climate Health and Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health, said the paper fits into an increasing scientific understanding that air pollution makes people sick.
“It’s just further evidence that there are risks of air pollution, and if we stop emitting air pollution, there will be benefits,” said Buonocore, who was not involved in the study.
George Thurston, professor of environmental medicine and population health at the New York University School of Medicine, another scientist who was not involved in the study, said the study adds credence to the idea that pollution doesn’t just make a patient’s asthma worse — it can actually cause it.
“Right now the (federal) government does not acknowledge that air pollution causes kids to get asthma,” Thurston said. “The question was, does air pollution cause children to get asthma as a disease that they would not normally get? And more and more evidence has been building that case, and that’s a very significant health outcome.”
The authors tried to find a control group of other students in Allegheny County that fit the same demographics of the children living near high-pollution sources, but they could not, because areas with similarly high populations of minority and low income residents were all located close to air pollution sources.
“They just went to the pollution source and said, ‘well, who lives around here?’” Thurston said. “And guess what? You know, you go to the most polluted places, that’s where minority communities are — unfortunately — living. And this is not just a Pittsburgh problem. This is a nationwide situation.”
Gentile said the study shows that reducing air pollution in these areas would improve their childhood asthma rates.
“It’s not to say that if you get rid of air pollution, all asthma is going to go away,” Gentile said. “We know allergies play a role, and respiratory viruses, and other things. But it’s certainly going to go a long way toward helping these kids.”
Aaron Aupperlee, a spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department, which regulates air quality, said the department “recognizes a higher prevalence of asthma among children in certain areas of the county and is working to address this concern through air quality enforcement and monitoring and its Maternal and Child Health programs.”
(Philadelphia) In the battleground state of Pennsylvania, voters prioritizing environmental issues may have tipped the scales of the election in favor of Joe Biden.
The Environmental Voter Project records that at least 54,976 environmentalists cast their ballots for the very first time in the presidential election. That number surpasses the margin of victory between the two major presidential candidates in Pennsylvania as of Tuesday afternoon, when Biden was leading by about 45,400 votes.
The 2020 general election has been notable for its record voter turnout overall: 62% of the eligible voting population in the United States, as of Sunday’s tabulations.
Environmentalists — people who say they view climate and the environment as a top priority — haven’t always been good at showing up to the polls.
“Environmentalists are very bad at voting,” Grist’s Eve Andrews wrote in 2018. She cited the 2014 midterm election as an example: In it, 44% of all registered voters showed up, but only 21% of registered voters who considered themselves environmentalists did.
That’s what Nathaniel Stinnett, co-founder of the Environmental Voter Project, hopes to change. “We’re not in the mind-changing business; we are solely in the behavior-changing business,” he told WHYY News.
The Environmental Voter Project maintains a database of voters who it considers likely to prioritize environmental issues, based on polling and modeling, but who most of the time don’t vote. Then it starts pushing those voters to the polls via text message, calls, door-to-door canvassing, and more.
Those involved in the effort don’t talk about policies, or try to convince non-environmentalists on the issues … they’re “just laser-focused on turning them into better voters,” Stinnett said. “And that’s not just the big sexy elections like the presidential [ones]; we use local and state and special elections as behavioral intervention opportunities to start changing these people’s voting habits.”
And this election season, it was effective: The Environmental Voter Project’s messaging mobilized 8,845 early voters in the city of Philadelphia, with 28,441 early voters in the broader Philadelphia area (Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties).
Other environmental groups worked to increase turnout as well. The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization mobilizing around climate action, claims a major impact on youth turnout in the Nov. 3 election, reaching an estimated 3.5 million across the country. (For context, when the race was called Saturday, Biden led the popular vote by a margin of more than 4 million). NextGen America, backed by billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer, dedicated $45 million to mobilizing young voters, as well.
That doesn’t mean all environmentalists cast votes for Biden, of course; the Election Voter Project encourages people to vote, but doesn’t tell those people who to vote for. And the Sunrise Movement, although instrumental in shifting Biden’s environmental action plan, did stop short of an official endorsement. But given the current president’s climate policy record, it’s likely that voters looking for environmental protection may have leaned Democrat in the general election.Who are environmentalist voters, anyway?
To some, it might seem counterintuitive that environmentalists — typed as aggressively vocal and often politically minded — would ever fail to turn out on Election Day. But that’s, in part, because the typical environmentalist may not fit an assumed stereotype.
Demographically, the Environmental Voter Project’s targeted voters in Philadelphia were twice as likely to be Black than white. They were also more likely to be young than old, women than men, and more likely to make less than $50,000 a year than to exceed that number.
“In every state that the Environmental Voter Project works in, we find that young people are more likely than older people to care deeply about climate and the environment … women are more likely than men, and people of color, especially African Americans and Asian Americans in Pennsylvania, are more likely than white people to talk about climate and environment as their top priority,” Stinnett said.
In the suburbs, “it’s the same, but the differences are not as stark,” he added. That’s usually because the numbers are smaller; the Environmental Voter Project is less likely to find people making salaries of under $50,000 living in Montgomery County, for example.
Those differences in demographics are telling. People of color and low-income communities in the United States are much more likely to be impacted by toxic air and polluted water — it can cause life-altering illnesses via chemical exposure, or put residents at higher risk for other health hazards like COVID-19. For those communities, environmental protection against the climate crisis isn’t just an ideal — it’s an urgent and necessary goal for their survival.
At the same time, those communities are also less likely to vote, due to barriers such as busy lives, illness, transportation, candidate disinterest, and administrative issues, as well as larger systems of voter suppression and disenfranchisement.
But this fall, many of them did make it out to vote, and now, they might be in a position to demand that their priorities be reflected by the actions of elected officials.
WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.
(Washington) — President-elect Joe Biden says he will make climate change a priority on day one of his administration, planning to write a letter to the United Nations recommitting the country to the Paris Agreement and urging nations to bolster their pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions. President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the landmark treaty, which became official the day after Election Day.
Spain’s Environment Minister and Vice President Theresa Ribera praised Biden’s commitment to rejoining the agreement.
“I think that this is very good news,” she told WHYY. “This could facilitate and accelerate climate action in a very fair way.”
Ribera says having the U.S. back in the agreement could jump-start global action on cutting carbon emissions by reconstructing alliances between the traditional big powers like the European Union, Canada, and Australia, and emerging powers like India, China, and Brazil.
“The commitment of the United States to this agenda is also very positive in terms of values,” said Ribera. “I think the American spirit to work to defend, to invest, to make partnerships with people who are suffering is also important.”
Some of the poorest nations have suffered disproportionately from the impacts of a warming planet despite contributing the least amount of carbon to the atmosphere.
The Paris Agreement committed nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions with the goal of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. Climate scientists say time is running out, with only a decade left to get emissions under control. Biden’s climate plan seeks to reach net-zero carbon emissions in the U.S. by 2050.
His plan includes ramping up clean energy infrastructure projects like building more electric car charging stations and promoting energy-efficient buildings.
“I’m hopeful,” says John Byrne, director of the Center for Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware. “I believe that the climate plan that his campaign issued is the kind of multi-dimensional approach we need. We need to do a lot in renewables. We need to do a lot in energy conservation and energy efficiency, especially when it pays for itself.”
Byrne has worked with the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for decades, helping to craft climate treaties including the 2015 Paris Agreement.
He says the U.S. has been on the sidelines of clean energy manufacturing since George W. Bush exited the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and that’s been exacerbated over the last four years.
“But I think we can, with proper national signals and support, we can catch up,” he said. “The United States has led in the development of the most cost-effective and most productive solar electric technologies on the planet. It’s just that we lost the ability to take that, if you will, from laboratory to production. We’re not going to regain all of it, but we certainly could play a role as we move forward.”Reversing the rollbacks
The Trump administration spent the last four years dismantling environmental regulations, which Trump says hurt businesses and the economy. More than 100 rules governing clean water, clean air, chemical contamination, and greenhouse gas emissions have been reversed.
And while issues like the coronavirus, racial justice and health care may have dominated voter’s decisions, a lot of people who voted for Biden said they want Biden to restore environmental protections.
“I grew up in a rural community where the water was clean, where the air was clean and I want that 100, 200, 500 years from now,” said Tricia Bruning outside a polling place in North Philadelphia on Election Day. “I want that for Philadelphians, I want that for people all over the world.”
A large amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from cars and trucks. A new administration could impact the kind of cars we drive in the future by restoring the Obama administration’s fuel efficiency standards.
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware all follow California’s tailpipe emission standards, which are cleaner than those set by the federal government. But last year, Trump revoked the ability of states to set tougher limits, and environmentalists expect Biden to restore stricter tailpipe standards set by California.
Maya van Rossum with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network says she feels a sense of relief that Trump will no longer be president. But she says Biden won’t be able to set things right on day one.
“There’s a lot that a Biden administration is going to have to do to bring us back up to where we were before Donald Trump became the president,” said van Rossum.
Van Rossum says it will be difficult for Biden to implement new protections if Republicans remain in control of the Senate. She says Trump’s conservative judicial appointees could also create roadblocks long into the future.
“So much of environmental protection depends on the ability of people to go into court and get a fair hearing about the facts and the science and the impacts and the laws, because all too often, even when we have a good administration in office, government agencies get it wrong,” said van Rossum.
Many worry that Trump will implement further rollbacks through executive orders in the two-and-a-half months he will remain in office.
PennEnvironment Director David Masur says many of Trump’s regulatory rollbacks are still tied up in court, and if Biden were to reverse them, some are still subject to regulatory review.
“The hard part is, for better or for worse, it will take a lot of time and energy to undo all of the steps backwards that the Trump administration implemented over the last four years,” said Masur. “You can’t just snap your fingers and make all that go away.”
Masur says Biden can have an influence on enforcement since he’s expected to appoint qualified scientists to run agencies like the EPA.
During the campaign, Trump focused a lot on fracking, falsely accusing Biden of wanting to ban it. But Biden can only ban fracking on federal land, where he has promised to halt any new leases. Penn State Geoscience professor Terry Engelder says a Biden presidency is likely to have little impact on the oil and gas industry even if he makes good on his promise to ban new fracking on federal land.
“Most of what is [onshore] federal and potential for oil and gas development has already been leased,” said Engelder. “I mean, there’s not a lot left out there that the industry will be able to find. So that I think even a Biden presidency doesn’t affect the industry directly.”
Engelder says there could be more regulations under Biden. He has promised to restore federal limits on methane emissions from oil and gas wells. Engelder says despite Biden’s ambitious climate goals, demand for Pennsylvania’s shale gas won’t go away soon, especially since so much electricity is now generated by natural gas power plants.
WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.
Comments can be submitted until Jan. 14, 2021.
Andy Kubis / The Allegheny Front
On election day, our team of reporters visited polling places in our listening area to talk with voters about how they voted, and if environmental issues were top of mind.
Mike Davis voted for President Trump in Beaver Falls, near where Shell is building an ethane cracker in Beaver County. He’s in favor of it, and even of building more in the region, because of the jobs they could provide. He worries Biden would shut down or cut back the industry.
“People have to work…no matter what industry you’re in, you’re going to have pollution,” he said. “You’re going to have everything else. Sorry, that’s just the way I feel.”
But Faith Veon, who voted for Biden, has a lot of reservations about the cracker.
“I feel like the regulations aren’t up to standard to make me feel comfortable with what they’re putting into our rivers and our air,” she said. “I anticipate that when they are up and functioning, it will have a direct impact on our health and in our community.”In Clairton
Andy Kubis / The Allegheny Front
When polls opened at the Clairton municipal building, more than a dozen people were waiting in line. Clairton, about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh, is home to the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works, the largest coke manufacturing facility in the United States and one of the largest polluters in Allegheny County.
90-year-old Jacqueline Wellington Moore came to vote for Joe Biden.
“This beautiful blue ball, the earth, belongs to all of us and we should be able to get along,” she said. “And that’s what I’m trying to make happen. I wanted to come in person, that makes it more important to me.”
But Moore said she’s not that concerned about environmental issues when it comes to the election.
“I know who’s in charge of this universe and there’s nothing we can do to destroy it,” she said.
Deborah Wolfe, a lifelong Clairton resident, said she doesn’t like the pollution that comes out of the U.S. Steel plant, but she and her husband Larry are all in for Trump.
Andy Kubis / The Allegheny Front
“I like truth, facts and honesty,” she said. “I think he’s doing a good job all around.”
About a mile away at George Washington Carver Senior Center, Darryl Watts cast his vote for Joe Biden.
“A vote is a privilege. You know what I mean?” he asked. “Our people voted and back in the South, they went through hell to get what we had to get done now. So if you complain about something, your vote does mean something. But first you have to vote.”
Watts said the environment was on his mind during this election. He worked at U.S. Steel plant here and said he knows the smokey emissions have impacted people.
‘A lot of people have died from cancer and different stuff around here in Clairton,” he said. “And it has a lot to do with that mill.”In the city and suburbs
In Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood, Keith Harris said he voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris because he could find nothing good about Trump’s presidency, including his environmental record.
“He rolled back a lot of regulations on the environment, controls we have, that we’ve had in place,” he said. “And he did it for money, you know? Our kids have to live here, and Trump doesn’t care about that. He cares more about companies making money off of our kids’ future. That’s no good.”
Harris hopes moving away from a reliance on oil and fracking will start with Biden, and will be continued by Democrats in future administrations.
In Sewickley, a suburb north of Pittsburgh, Anne Gould, a retired flight attendant, voted for Biden. She said COVID was the most important issue in the election, but climate change was also important to her.
“In a way, it’s kind of like the virus — you follow the protocol, you do things correctly because of the other person,” she said. “[It’s] not just about yourself. Same thing with climate change; you can’t just think about yourself and your own generation. You have to think about future generations.”
In both cases, Gould said, we have to listen to scientists.In Centre County
19-year old Logan Clancy, an undergraduate student at Penn State studying parks and recreation, voted at the Patton South precinct in State College. He said he voted reluctantly for Joe Biden. Climate change is important to Clancy, and Biden isn’t as strong on the issue as he would like.
“I’m just looking forward to the much farther in the future whenever both parties make some significant changes in the way that they work, in the way that they operate, and the people that they put up to actually make substantial change for everyday people and not just for other people who are already in power,” he said.
Reid Frazier, Julie Grant, Kara Holsopple, Andy Kubis of The Allegheny Front, and Min Xian (WPSU), contributed to this report.
Environmental groups are suing the federal government over air pollution from flares at gas processing plants and other industrial facilities.
The EPA is supposed to update its requirements for industrial flares every eight years, but environmental groups say the agency hasn’t done so in over 20 years.
In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the groups are asking the EPA to conduct a review and update the regulations.
The lawsuit says the result of the EPA’s current standards are releases of “larger quantities of pollutants that are toxic, smog-forming, or otherwise hazardous to the health of nearby communities” which are “disproportionately located in and near communities of color and lower-income communities.”
Flares are used to burn off excess gases at natural gas processing stations, landfills, and other sites. If done properly, flaring can eliminate nearly all hazardous pollutants in the gases they burn.
But the groups say flares at some facilities are faring far worse than that.
An EPA estimate of ethylene plants found that flares were destroying only about 90 percent of the pollutants in the gas.
“And what you really want is you want to flare operating with 98 percent efficiency or above,” said Adam Kron, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity project, one of the groups suing the EPA.
Kron said plants will often inject steam into their flares to suppress smoke. But if too much steam is injected, the flares will not burn hazardous pollutants that can be in the waste stream.
“Flares destroy those pollutants and prevent them from getting out there. So if the flares aren’t actually doing that, you’re winding up with just multiple times more pollutants,” Kron said.
An agency spokesperson said the EPA does not comment on pending litigation.
For one, it's less regulation and spending — but others say they want politicians to listen to them about what's needed to help the farming community meet the challenges of climate change.
(Williamstown) — Authorities on Wednesday were investigating after a man died in a central Pennsylvania coal mine.
Daniel Shoener, 36, of Donaldson, was struck by a rock about 1,000 feet below the surface in Williamstown Mine #1 on Tuesday afternoon, police said.
Fellow miners were able to get Shoener to the surface, but police said his blunt force injuries were too severe and he died at the scene.
The anthracite coal mine, in Williamstown, Dauphin County, is operated by Kimmel’s Coal and Packaging.
The accident was under investigation and no other details were available.
President Trump spent four years dismantling nearly 100 federal environmental rules and policies. So, what would a second term for Trump mean for the environment?
“Another four years of the Trump administration and the Trump EPA, I think, would be catastrophic,” said Robert Routh, an attorney with the Clean Air Council, an environmental group based in Philadelphia.
The Trump administration has rolled back climate rules set by the Obama administration to curb emissions from power plants, cars, and the oil and gas industry. These have come even as scientists say we need to move quickly to lower emissions or risk the worst effects of climate change.
If Trump wins the Nov. 3 election, Routh said, “you would not see any progress on environmental rules or regulations” in the U.S. “You would see a continued gutting and rolling back of common sense baseline standards that have been in place.”
The two presidential candidates differ sharply on a number of issues. But their differences are especially pronounced when it comes to their stances on the environment.
Experts and advocates say these differences would have a profound impact on environmental policies in Pennsylvania, the country’s second-leading energy producing state.
The Trump administration has resisted even admitting that climate change poses a problem, and has not articulated a plan to deal with it.
Reid R. Frazier / StateImpact Pennsylvania
Biden, meanwhile is calling for a $2 trillion climate plan that would make the economy carbon neutral by 2050. He is calling on Congress to pass some type of climate legislation if he’s elected. This could be bad news for the state’s coal industry, since coal has the biggest CO2 footprint of any fossil fuel.
Rachel Gleason, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, said a big climate bill is likely if Biden wins.
“I completely think that that would probably happen,” Gleason said. “I think it’s pretty clear that the Biden-Harris ticket does not have an appetite for the coal industry, and that’s a problem.”
But Gleason said that by rolling back regulations on coal, like the Clean Power Plan, which regulated emissions from power plants, and the Stream Protection Rule, which targeted pollution from mining, Trump has kept coal from an even steeper decline.
“I don’t know that we can actually argue there’s been an uptick in production in the industry, but it’s definitely steadied itself — until the pandemic hit,” Gleason said.
Other industries say they’ve benefited from Trump’s environmental rollbacks, including his changes to the National Environmental Policy Act — or NEPA. The law requires environmental reviews for federally-permitted projects.
“It really cuts across the board from agriculture to forestry to manufacturing, energy and transportation. Basically all the major commodity and industrial segments are going to be at some point touched by NEPA,” said Kevin Sunday, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
Matt Smith / Keystone Crossroads
Business groups say the reviews take too long, and Trump shortened them.
Biden could revoke any changes to NEPA, and he could also reverse Trump’s rollbacks of Obama-era regulations targeting the oil and gas industry’s release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Pennsylvania has state rules that limit methane leaks on wells built after 2018, but Routh, of the Clean Air Council, said the Trump administration’s moves also put the kibosh on cutting emissions for thousands of wells built before that.
Routh said the older wells are “by far the greatest source of emissions of methane right now.”
Even without regulations, a potential Biden administration could start to impact the state’s natural gas industry, said Artem Abramov, an analyst with the consulting firm Rystad Energy. Abramov said there would be no sudden effect.
“I would not expect that there will be any immediate implications for (natural gas) producers themselves if we observe this change in the administration,” Abramov said.
Even if he wanted to, Biden couldn’t ban fracking in Pennsylvania, Abramov said. That requires an act of Congress. And Biden has made it clear he doesn’t want to do that.
But Biden’s plan to boost renewables — like offshore wind projects in the Atlantic ocean — could hurt demand for natural gas from Pennsylvania.
Once a wave of those projects come on line, Abramov said, “I think the whole Northeastern region will be the first region in the U.S. where gas consumption peaks, structurally.”
Those are some of the reasons why Lisa Johnson is worried about a Biden presidency. She runs Sunnyside Supply, which sells equipment to the natural gas industry in Washington County. She — and the rest of her 12 or so employees — all plan to vote for Trump.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
“It makes me very nervous if Biden would get in with his green energy, where we stand,” Johnson said. “And, you know, we might not see it in the first six months, but long term over the next four years, where will we be?”
But others, like Anaïs Peterson, say we need to address climate change.
Peterson, a recent college grad from O’Hara Township, just outside Pittsburgh, is working as an environmental activist. She said climate change is already happening in Pennsylvania — in the form of increased flooding and hotter weather — and around the world. She’s voting for Biden.
“It’s very present in our lives. And it’s not just about polar bears and ice caps melting, but it’s about humanity’s ability to survive,” she said.
She said there’s a large economic opportunity in transitioning away from fossil fuels toward renewables: “I think people really want to see leadership towards this.”
Trains still carry coal past the now-abandoned Mathies Mine, located on the Monongahela River in Washington County. Metal fencing blocks the mine entrance, a cave-like opening where hundreds of miners once trod miles of tunnels.
Art Sullivan worked at Mathies about 40 years ago. He fondly remembers the challenge and camaraderie of the labor, and what it meant for his family and neighbors.
“The attachment is more to the community: the religion, the family, and the land for farming and hunting and fishing,” he said, standing outside the mine.
During his career, Sullivan advanced in the industry and eventually traveled the world consulting coal companies. But now, he’s left with a sense of betrayal.
An-Li Herring / WESA
“Donald Trump has no plan for coal,” the Washington County resident said of the president. “The problem is he lied to we coal miners.”
In 2016, Trump’s vows to rescue the coal industry fired up his base. At one campaign rally in West Virginia, then-candidate Trump pledged, “We’re going to bring those miners back, you’re going to be so proud of your president. You’re going to be so proud of your country.”
But the coal industry has lost another 10 percent of its workforce since Trump took office. The losses include hundreds of mining jobs in southwestern Pennsylvania alone.
During his 2016 campaign, Trump blamed Obama-era environmental regulations for the decline, and set about rolling those protections back. And although coal has continued to decline, Republicans still highlight energy as a critical wedge issue between Trump and his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. Arguments over fracking for natural gas, a major industry in western Pennsylvania and a crucial factor in coal’s dwindling fortunes, have consumed much of the campaign. In the candidates’ final debate Thursday, Trump hounded Biden for saying he would seek to transition away from fossil fuels such as oil and gas.
“Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Ohio?” the president asked, touting the significance of the issue in some key battleground states.
Biden firmly denies GOP claims that he would ban fracking. In fact, his strategy instead focuses on clean energy. The Democrat has proposed a $2 trillion investment in clean energy technology and infrastructure development, with the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
Broader use of renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, would not only benefit the environment, Biden said in a campaign video last year, but it would also “create more than 10 million new good-paying jobs all across the clean economy in the United States of America. It’s an enormous opportunity.”
A lot of construction jobs
Some of this work has already happened locally: A dozen union carpenters worked for a year attaching solar panels to the frame of a former steel rolling mill in Hazelwood. The array, completed this summer, now powers tech companies located inside the sprawling structure.
An-Li Herring / WESA
Tim Sippey was the project foreman. Having never worked in renewable infrastructure before, he said the main adjustment was handling the delicate glass solar panels.
“You can’t bang them around. So that was one challenge,” he said. “The other challenge was how lightweight they are, because most things we pick [up] are real heavy. But [the panels] were lightweight so they would catch the wind.”
Sippey thinks Biden’s plan means jobs for people in construction. And Michael Carnahan, vice president and general manager for solar energy company Scalo Solar, noted that building green infrastructure involves “all the different construction positions … between excavation, steel work, carpentry, electrical computers.” Carnahan oversaw the engineering and construction of the solar array in Hazelwood.
He added that solar energy promises to create jobs in communities across the country because it depends on the wide distribution of infrastructure to capture the energy, and then convert it into electricity.
“You’re talking about big solar farms and stuff like that that can be done on some hilly areas, too,” he said. “We’re talking about power plants in every location. Power plants on residential roofs. You can put 12, 15 solar panels on a roof and provide basically your net-zero energy.”
Carnahan acknowledged that challenges remain in areas like Pittsburgh that tend to be cloudy. In fact, when there’s not enough direct sunlight, the Hazelwood solar array instead draws on the largely fossil fuel-driven electrical grid. But during sunnier periods, it sends excess energy back to the grid for use by others.
An-Li Herring / WESA
To Carnahan, such hurdles illustrate the value of Biden’s proposed investment, because it could facilitate the development of energy storage technology that might one day eliminate the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.
Environmental priorities: Friend or foe of energy jobs?
But former coal miner Jason White doubts that Biden’s more immediate plan to build green infrastructure has much to offer people like him. The Washington County native predicts miners would be reluctant to move from project to project after having grown accustomed to working for years in the same mine. Plus, he noted, they’d need to learn entirely new skills.
While Biden has pledged to make sure coal miners have the support they need to make that transition, White said it hasn’t worked out that way for his neighbors.
“I can’t tell you how many people I know that now either work at Wal-Mart, some job that’s half of what they were making, and they’re either struggling or they retired and now they’re on Social Security,” he said.
A supporter of the president’s, White believes environmental regulations hurt his industry. The Waynesburg mine where he used to work closed in 2015, and he said by the time Trump was elected, it was too late to undo that damage. But a Trump loss now, he added, would just make things worse.
“If he loses, and the next administration says, ‘Oh well, we’re going back to where it was eight years ago,’ well then you’re back to people being displaced, and power plants are going to continue to close,” White said.
An-Li Herring / WESA
Bill Kozlovich, who worked in coal for 20 years and now chairs the Republican Party of Fayette County, said voters should give Trump’s policies more time to take effect.
“We’ve been way, way over-regulated, and Donald Trump is working on that. But he can only do so much [in four years],” the Uniontown resident said. “Tax cuts, rolling regulation back … grows your business.”
Jason Bostic, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, added that Trump’s approach is also “extremely encouraging” for workers in the manufacturing and energy sectors because it reflects an “overarching attitude … that he’s trying to protect their jobs.”
“The president, I think, firmly believes in the resiliency of the American blue-collar worker and the need for heavy industry to flourish and advance in this country,” Bostic said.
But Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, contends that Trump’s appeal is based on “a false choice” between jobs and the environment. By contrast, Walsh said, Biden recognizes “that good-paying jobs for all Americans should be at the center of our climate and energy solutions.”
A coalition of major labor unions and environmental organizations, the BlueGreen Alliance announced its support for Biden this summer. It was the first time in its 14-year history that the group had endorsed a candidate for president.
Walsh acknowledged that Biden’s plan would require significant retraining for some who work in coal today. “But this is … not just an issue of skills,” he said. “These are some of the hardest-working people in the country … We have to have a sort of ecosystem of support around [them] as they are transitioning.” Those supports, Walsh said, include continued health insurance coverage and income.
Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who has long stressed both blue-collar needs and environmental principles, added that the best way to respond to workers who remain skeptical of Biden’s energy plan is to deliver on the former vice president’s promise to prioritize their needs.
“We need to be held accountable and to make sure we don’t leave these industries, these individuals, and these regions behind,” Fetterman said.
But to give that strategy a try, Biden would have to get elected first. And voters in coal country could play a big part in deciding whether that happens.