In Braddock, Imagining Environmental Justice for a ‘Sacrifice Zone’
“My name is Edith Abeyta.”
The word ‘question’ was tattooed across the backs of her fingers, which shook slightly as she spoke.
“I live in North Braddock. I live in a sacrifice zone. I live in a dystopia.”
A collection of engineers, scientists and officials from the U.S. Department of Energy [DOE] peered back at her, seated in a conference room at an agency-sponsored carbon capture workshop at Hazelwood Green in December.
“You may ask: How did I get here? Why is it that I am standing here talking to you today?”
Edith, a professional artist and self-described “activist for imagination,” has led grassroots advocacy in her community since 2014. She successfully organized to stop bids to frack at U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works and at the Grand View Golf Club in North Braddock, Pennsylvania.
For months, she and a handful of locals representing North Braddock Residents for Our Future had been speaking with department officials.
The DOE’s newly formed Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations [OCED] last year announced a funding process for a national buildout of four regional hydrogen [H2] hubs, in an attempt to decarbonize heavy industries like steelmaking. A hub in this region would more than likely make “blue” hydrogen using fracked natural gas. Local leaders and industrial titans like U.S. Steel, Shell and Norway-based gas giant Equinor have pledged to collectively advance the project.
North Braddock Residents for Our Future responded with concern.
“Already, we see that regional elected officials and business elites are launching vigorous campaigns to ‘win’ H2Hub development awards,” they wrote to the agency last March. “Yet our region also has a long and ongoing history of energy extraction, and an accumulated legacy of past and recent industrial development.”
The group viewed the hydrogen hub initiative “with deep concern, and even some degree of cynicism, born from that experience.”
The mission to manifest new technologies like hydrogen and carbon capture has also elevated the profile of communities like Braddock as important exhibits in the national debate over environmental justice.
There, three women epitomize how the historic steelmaking community is becoming a centerpiece of environmental justice policy, imperiled but also empowered by efforts to build our energy future. In Braddock, a longtime community advocate works through struggles of the past, and in North Braddock, which calls itself the “birth place of steel,” a borough council president sketches a vision for the future.
In August, accompanied by a van full of Mon Valley residents, Edith traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with the director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity at the DOE. In September, she led a delegation of a dozen or so officials, including OCED Director David Crane, on a tour of communities in the Mon Valley.
“We were asked, what do we want?” Edith explained to the bureaucrats at the carbon workshop in December.
“We want what other communities and people have that don’t live in a sacrifice zone: health, prosperity, uninterrupted sleep, clean air, clean water, longevity, lead-free homes, transportation, healthy food, wellness and schools.” Her voice broke slightly.
“Why is it that these baselines for life are utopic expectations for people who live next to a source polluter?”
Washington: ‘Folks on the Ground Know’
The DOE’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations was born from the bipartisan infrastructure law in 2021, strapped with $25 billion and given an urgent mandate to help the U.S. achieve decarbonization goals in the face of a global climate crisis.
The office is demonstrating nascent technology for the first time, “but we also want to demonstrate how to do this while working hand-in-hand with communities,” said Suzy Baker, the DOE’s engagement lead on hydrogen.
For the past year or so, the DOE has been requesting information, hosting workshops and meeting with communities — “to understand where things have gone wrong in the past and what communities’ priorities and visions are for the future,” Baker said.
She acknowledged the limitations of a bureaucracy like the DOE to achieve restorative justice. Federal energy policy is forward looking, she said, and can fall short of taking responsibility for the ills of the past.
In recognition of the disruptive potential of new industry, the DOE mandates that funding proposals include community benefit plans that support “meaningful community and labor engagement,” workforce development, diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. The agency has also embraced the Biden Administration’s ‘Justice40’ initiative, which aims to allocate 40% of “overall benefits” for certain federal investments to “disadvantaged communities.” The DOE scores Braddock in the 99th percentile nationally on a scorecard of 36 “burden indicators.”
Eventually, through a process of merit reviews and scored rubrics, the office will decide which projects deserve federal funding. Community benefit plans are weighted to 1/5 of that calculus, on par with technical, economic and financial criteria.
“We want to empower communities to make their own determinations on their needs,” said Baker. “But truly, only folks on the ground know what is really needed.”
Mary: ‘We Need Little Things’
“It’s, like, really a ghost town. Only thing we missing is the tumbleweeds.”
A semi belched exhaust and roared past Mary Carey as she walked along the part of Braddock Avenue that’s flanked by train tracks on one side and a steel mill on the other.
Her feet stopped suddenly in the dirt.
“We don’t have no resources,” she said plainly. “Did you see any?”
There was the library, of course, where Mary worked for more than 10 years. It had a ceramics studio and a print shop and some programs to help people get jobs, but it’s closed now for renovations, and Mary was laid off in August.
A 20-year resident of Braddock, Mary is a helping hand in the community, among other things organizing a community oven in the summer.
She paused in front of Fifth Season, a robotic vertical farm housed in a warehouse across from the mill, heralded by many as a harbinger of positive change and jobs for the community. Her youngest son, now 19, had been hired to work there after he graduated from high school, but three days before he was due to start he was informed that the company had filed for bankruptcy. On this day, stacks of abandoned farming equipment stood outside the closed building.
On the other side of the street, the mill loomed, spewing into the overcast sky.
“I don’t even know if I would want somebody young working in there,” Mary said, “just because of the stories that I heard from people that used to work there. Cancer and all that, you know,” she trailed off.
For a time, Mary worked as a constituent service adviser for then-state Rep. Summer Lee, now a member of Congress.
“People would come in and I would help them,” she said. Some were looking for support in starting a business or looking for rent rebates, “Anything that could help them get some money,” she recalled.
“We need little things, like a food bank,” she said.
“We need health care,” she said. Budget cuts led UPMC to tear down the hospital over a decade ago, and now there’s an urgent care. “We need things that people get for free and don’t have to worry about it.”
She hadn’t heard much about hydrogen hubs or carbon capture technology.
Past the farm on Braddock Avenue, Mary stopped at a small garden lined with orange planters. Photographs of young people stuck up from small stands in the dirt, a memorial for lives claimed by violence in the community. Mary herself lost a brother and a grandson to gun violence. Most of the images had fallen over in the wind, and she spent the next 15 minutes fixing them up.
“That’s all we got really is our youth,” Mary had said earlier. She was frustrated with a lack of activities for young people like her 19-year-old. “There got to be things for them to do. There’s nothing for them to do.”
“You know, what is so sad to say? I really want my son to leave.”
“I don’t even know truthfully what can bring this town back,” she said over the noise of the traffic.
CMU: ‘Forwarding Community Vision’
A few miles up the Mon, in the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, a scale model of Braddock rests beneath a map of the municipality. On the walls hang histories of steelmaking in the Mon Valley, complete with visualized supply chains and meticulously mapped relationships between industry, health, nature and community. Tracing paper rests on top of a map of the Edgar Thomson Works, able to be flipped back and forth between the present and a vision of the future.
There, Edith works with a class of urban design graduate students to probe the issues at the heart of Mon Valley communities like hers in North Braddock, and ponder what possibilities the future could hold.
The class is a case study in conceiving of a decarbonized future in the Mon Valley, guided by community input and imaginations.
“It starts to change the narrative,” said Edith, who has collaborated with the class across three semesters. “It forwards community vision over a consultant vision over foundation vision over corporate vision.”
Each successive semester, the class has developed a body of work that reflects local needs and provides for them through imagined solutions. A riverfront park. A community market. Clean air and water and carbon-free steelmaking — supported by theoretical frameworks and mapped with architectural precision.
“There’s different ways in which the future of [the Edgar Thomson] site, for example, can unfold,” said Nida Rehman, an assistant professor of architecture at CMU who facilitates the class. “But those futures are not just the ones that are established in, let’s say the DOE rubrics. They’re established in other forms, other languages and other ways of thinking about community.”
When the DOE visited Pittsburgh in September, Edith gave officials a book of the class’ work.
Suzy Baker said she brought it back to Washington “like it was a sacred object. … It was so powerful.”
Now, the DOE is looking into funding similar “visioning sessions” for other communities.
Lisa: Solar in the Slackies
Lisa Franklin-Robinson bushwhacked through a thicket of jaggerbushes, clearing the way up to the Slackies of North Braddock. She used to play ball here as a kid; it was a makeshift playground for children who grew up in the borough’s destitute Third Ward.
The older kids used to dig trenches and lay plastic pipes along the clearing’s edge so that it wouldn’t flood when it rained. She pointed up along the hillside where she used to ride bikes, to one slope in particular: “They named the hill after me; it’s called the Lisa Hill,” she remembered.
It was late February. The Slackies were overgrown and looked neglected, and there were no children playing ball.
“This is where they would dump the coal slag,” explained Lisa, now president of the North Braddock Borough Council. “This is the land we’re looking at to do a solar farm.”
She imagines that a solar farm would bring hope for the community and “show that people are trying to do something.”
“I’m a fourth generation resident,” Lisa said. Her grandparents had come to North Braddock from Virginia during the Great Migration for a better life — “for the mill.”
And steel provided. During the depression, nobody in her family’s household suffered. “They all worked.”
“But then there’s that flipside,” said Lisa. Her great grandfather died in his 50s. “He had asthma so bad,” she recalled. But “should there be an exchange for people who are laborers to say, well, you get paid, but your life can be cut short?
“I don’t believe that health ever has to be in exchange for livelihood.”
In her own community, Lisa seldom uses the phrase ‘environmental justice.’ Usually, she said, those conversations occur in a language of fundamental needs.
“We have to be able to express what environmental justice is,” she said. “We have to be able to express it broadly so that people actually see where they fit into that, especially folks who don’t talk in those circles with that language very often.”
As momentum for new energy technologies accelerates, communities like North Braddock are pushing for something more tangible than a renewed industrial legacy.
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“I believe that big factories and industries, I don’t care who they are, they have to show more than just their existence as to benefit the community,” said Lisa. “They have to come up with agreements and other purpose in that community, to say we’re a partner with you.”
She brought up a new factory on the other side of the mill in East Pittsburgh. Eos Energy makes big, grid-scale batteries increasingly in-demand to store renewable energy. “When I walked in, I saw people that looked like me,” Lisa said. The company employs 195 people and each receives equity in a company building the infrastructure necessary to reach our climate aspirations. Eos is currently pursuing federal funding to expand their operations in the Mon Valley. “We pray that they get a loan from the DOE,” Lisa said.
Edith: ‘Whose Vision Moves Forward?’
Back in the room of officials and scientists at Hazelwood Green, Edith finished speaking.
“So what is our future and who benefits from it?” she pressed. “Whose future becomes the present? Whose vision moves forward?
“Is it possible for you to imagine a carbon-free future that benefits all? And how do we get there?”
Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at PublicSource and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter and Instagram @quinnglabicki.
This story was fact-checked by Betul Tuncer.