Universities aim to clean up city environment with new majors

Terry Tan | Senior Staff Illustrator

Though the city is now mostly free of smog and blackened bricks, the environmental impacts of the steel industry still cloud Pittsburgh’s air.

So what better a place for environmental studies students?

On the heels of Pitt and Point Park University developing environment-related majors, the city is headed for clearer skies and cleaner air, according to Matthew Mehalik, the program coordinator for Sustainable Pittsburgh. Mehalik said the new environmental studies major at Pitt and environmental journalism major at Point Park answer a call for a healthier Pittsburgh.

“These [students] are future leaders who can invest and bring to light some of the issues that are holding us back,” Mehalik said. “Pittsburgh is at a complex point in its history. Much has been done over the past 30 years as part of its transformation from an industrial economy to a diverse economy.”

The new major at Pitt, announced Feb. 17, aims to teach students focused on environmental research about the social and health effects environmental issues have on the community, according to Mark Collins, the adviser for the major.

Collins said the new major represents an ever-growing movement to improve the environment throughout Pittsburgh — a historically environmentally-unfriendly city.

Pittsburgh earned its notch on the Rust Belt through the U.S. steel mill industry during the Industrial Era, making more than 60 percent of the nation’s steel by 1910, according to “A Very Brief History of Pittsburgh” by William S. Dietrich II. Though economically beneficial, steel manufacturing bogged the air with smog, blackening 20th century skies.

“[These majors] seem to me to be part of a long history with a growing awareness of environmental issues in this area,” Collins said.

In a three-year study of nationwide air quality, the American Lung Association ranked Pittsburgh 21st out of a list of 25 of the most ozone polluted cities in the United States. A polluted ozone can cause respiratory and cardiovascular harm, worsened asthma, heart attacks, strokes and shorter lifespans, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

ALA also gave Allegheny County an “F” grade for ozone and particle pollution from 2011 to 2013 — meaning there are too many unhealthy air days in the county to attain the current ozone national standard.

According to Aftyn Giles, Pittsburgh’s Sustainability Commission coordinator, Point Park’s new environmental journalism major will help bring eco-issues to the forefront of media coverage.

“Unfortunately, the issues don’t seem to rise to ‘news’ or ‘noteworthy’ until they become a disaster, even though if they were reported on sooner in an evocative way, maybe the public could have made more informed decisions to prevent the outcome,” she said.

In partnership with Heinz Endowments, Point Park designed the major so students can decipher studies and data sets without the help of a researcher or specialist.

Thom Baggerman, chair of faculty at Point Park’s school of communications, said the major is necessary because environmental studies are often filled with field-specific jargon only specialists would typically be able to interpret.

“It’s really about giving the journalists another tool in their toolkit,” Baggerman said. “We just didn’t feel there was enough room in a certificate or minor to teach them enough to be effective.”

Pittsburgh’s history of environmental issues, Baggerman said, makes it the perfect hub for environmental studies.

“The environment has been and will be an important issue in Pittsburgh for a long time, so we think it’s important to have good reporting on it,” Baggerman said.

For Giles, the new majors aren’t only a step in the right direction — they’re absolutely necessary.

“If we don’t resolve our environmental issues, there isn’t much of a need for anything else because we won’t survive,” Giles said. “For all the things missing and ‘wrong’ with Pittsburgh, we need the new majors and populations of students to stay, inspire and drive the solutions to continue to make us a great city.”

Mehalik said Pitt’s and Point Park’s new majors can begin to rectify the city’s environmental history.

“We have much to be proud of, but we have to decide what we want to become next,” Mehalik said. “We have the opportunity to be inspired by sustainability, and students graduating from these new majors can help us create that story.”

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