Students fight environmental injustice in Pittsburgh through advocacy project


Photo courtesy of Martina Frederick, logo by Lauren Posey

Martina Frederick, left, Lauren Posey and Matthew Yager of Eco Justice Allies.

By Donata Massimiani, Staff Writer

Fighting environmental issues is feasible when proper funding is provided, but low-income communities often go without assistance, resulting in health disparities and a poor quality of life, according to Matthew Yager.

“We definitely know that there are ways that we can fight environmental issues and we’ve done them in rich neighborhoods,” Yager, a sophomore environmental studies major, said. “So why can’t we do them in poor neighborhoods?”

Students in R. Ward Allebach’s geology course titled Sustainability are tasked with creating a semester-long project focusing on either sustainability or environmental issues on campus. According to Martina Frederick, a sophomore environmental studies major, her group, “The Ecojustice Allies,” dedicated the semester to addressing environmental racism and injustice on campus and in Pittsburgh.

“Environmental racism or environmental injustice is any environmental disparity that happens in a group of minorities, not necessarily on purpose, but could have been prevented,” Frederick said. “The Flint Michigan water crisis is a really good example, and another example would be lead existing in soil around low-income housing.”

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Flint Michigan water crisis began in 2014 when the city switched its drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River to cut costs. This switch resulted in years of discolored and foul-smelling water and health issues for residents, while government officials ignored complaints. 

Frederick said the group created an Instagram page as their first step in spreading awareness about the issue of environmental racism. Through this page, they release weekly infographics that focus on different environmental injustice issues in Pittsburgh, such as the Clairton Coke Works factory and the Homewood-Brushton area.

According to Frederick, The Ecojustice Allies’ long-term goal is to create an environmental justice collective on campus. She said the group is conducting research on how collectives at other universities structure themselves, and said they are now partnered with the Student Office of Sustainability, which is mentoring them through the process. 

 “We’re working on creating a collective that meets bi-monthly and talks to other environmental groups on campus like Epsilon Eta and Free the Planet,” Fredrick said. “They would basically have a representative that would come meet with us and we would talk about ways to address environmental injustice.” 

Lauren Posey, a sophomore environmental studies major, said another element of their project includes in-person demonstrations. The Ecojustice Allies will table in the William Pitt Union Plaza on Friday to spread awareness on the problems surrounding Clairton Coke Works, with a general theme of large industrial polluters in the city. 

“We’re going to have a model factory that’s belching out fake smoke next to a sign that says ‘Don’t do coke’ because it’s a coke plant and coke is used to make steel,” Posey said. “We’ll have these eye-catching things that hopefully will draw college students in so we can start a conversation with them.” 

Clairton Coke Works is the largest coke-making facility in the United States. The process that’s required to make coke, a type of pure carbon, generates hazardous air pollutants, and residents in Allegheny County are up to 20 times more likely to develop cancer than residents of surrounding rural areas. These pollutants increase the risk of asthma, heart disease and lung disease. 

Posey said their group is planning another demonstration which will focus on water quality. They are planning to host a “leadmonade” stand at an undetermined date, where instead of having lemonade they will feature lead-contaminated water. 

According to the Environmental Health News, a 2019 analysis released by the non-profit advocacy group Women for a Healthy Environment revealed that 80% of Allegheny County’s water supply has detectable levels of lead. The report also notes previous research that confirmed communities of color and low-income communities in Pittsburgh are most affected by lead exposure.  

According to Posey, Pittsburgh is “especially apt” to suffer from environmental issues and is ranked among one of the top cities in the nation for poor air-quality and air pollution deaths. She said “The Allegheny County Toxic Ten” — 10 active industrial facilities — are responsible for 83% of the air pollution in the Pittsburgh area.

Posey said they hope to make environmental spaces on campus more inclusive and wants everyone to know there is space for their voice to be heard. She said there are multiple different environmental advocacy groups on campus, and no prior knowledge or experience in the field is required to get involved.

“We [Pitt] aren’t quite impacted as badly as areas that are directly closer to those industrial facilities, but it still impacts us and still impacts student health,” Posey said. “Students are obviously still very young and still developing, so it’s not good for them or the community.”