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Friday, November 13, 2015

Posted By on Fri, Nov 13, 2015 at 3:42 PM

The Environmental Protection Agency is in Pittsburgh for two days to hear testimony on the federal Clean Power Plan, and minorities are asking that environmental-justice measures be included.

click to enlarge Carmen Alexander of New Voices Pittsburgh spoke at a rally outside of the federal building in Downtown Pittsburgh, where EPA hearings were taking place. - PHOTO BY ASHLEY MURRAY
Photo by Ashley Murray
Carmen Alexander of New Voices Pittsburgh spoke at a rally outside of the federal building in Downtown Pittsburgh, where EPA hearings were taking place.
"We need to be able to breathe clean air," said Carmen Alexander, of New Voices Pittsburgh, a reproductive-justice organization that also focuses on environmental issues. She spoke to City Paper at a rally outside of Pittsburgh's William S. Moorhead Federal Building where the hearings are taking place. "We want everyone to know that we support a stronger clean power plan, and that we know that our communities are dying due to respiratory issues."

The hearings in Pittsburgh kick off a series of four EPA hearings, including sessions in Atlanta, Denver and Washington, D.C. The plan sets standards for greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil-fuel-fired power plants. The plan aims to reduce levels of carbon dioxide by 32 percent nationally under 2005 levels by 2030. States can implement their own plans — and Pennsylvania is on its way to doing so — but if a state does not comply, the EPA will enforce its own paln.

"What’s important here is states around us like West Virginia or Ohio, if they decide they don’t want to comply, we need a strong plan to get them to comply as well as other states across the nation," says Randy Francisco of the Sierra Club, which joined the coalition of groups rallying outside of the EPA hearing. "So this is big-time, as far as what it means to the country. We think we have an opportunity in PA to do better than whatever this might be, but that’s why we’re here." 

Alexander and others asking the EPA for environmental justice say they want to make sure the agency knows that minorities and low-income communities are suffering disproportionately because of pollution. 

"Structural discrimination ensures that they also have the hardest time bouncing back from these disasters," testified Ben Ishibashi, who traveled from Chicago with the group National People's Action.

"I'm a person of color. We're often shut out of these decisions," he told CP after his testimony. "But we're often the first to get hit by injustices. While I think the clean-power plan is a good start, it's not doing enough. I want to see a plan that's ten times as just."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans were 20 percent more likely than non-Hispanic whites to have asthma in 2012. However, a direct cause is not listed.

"People who have lower incomes face greater risks of air pollution because we live closer to the sources of pollution," said Alexander during her testimony. "Less than 15 
click to enlarge 1Hood Media performed at a rally outside of the EPA Clean Power Plan hearings in Pittsburgh - PHOTO BY ASHLEY MURRAY
Photo by Ashley Murray
1Hood Media performed at a rally outside of the EPA Clean Power Plan hearings in Pittsburgh
miles from where I grew up, and where I raised my children, is the Cheswick power plant . I’m a mother of five children, and a grandmother of two, and I have one on the way. I raised three boys with asthma, and I have a grandson who has severe respiratory problems."

"I can’t imagine how I was able to afford having three boys with asthma. I was making minimum wage, and at that time, we had to get medication for three boys. We had to navigate doctors' appointments to make sure they got the care they needed. We also had to make sure we had the co-payment available for them."

The American Lung Association's 2015 State of the Air report cites studies that link harmful air-pollution impacts to socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, and says that scientists speculate that one reason may be "housing dynamics and land cost" in proximity to pollution sources, among other possibilities.

"It’s important to include communities of color because they are some of the most effected communities particularly in Pittsburgh," Francisco said. "If you look at air quality in Pittsburgh, it’s affecting areas where these folks live, and that is having a harmful effect on their families, their livelihoods. So it’s so important to bring them into this conversation and to be part of their conversations on how we can lift every voice up in this movement."

According to the latest U.S. Census data available, the communities around the coal-fired power plant in Cheswick are a mixed bag of races and income levels. About three miles upriver, in New Kensington, the average household income is $47,000, and 10 percent of the population is African American. Approximately five miles down the river is Penn Hills, where households make on average $57,000, and 34 percent of the population is black. Meanwhile, across the river from the plant is Oakmont, where the average income is $82,000 and the black population is less than 1 percent.

"The thing to remember, of course, is that air pollution travels, and there’s certain pollution affecting local community, and there’s pollution affecting communities downwind, so it does affect more than immediate communities," Liz Perera, climate policy director for the Sierra Club, told CP by phone from Washington, D.C.

Just last month, the environmental group PennEnvironment named Cheswick the second largest polluter in Allegheny County.

Third on the report's list, and though not a coal-fired power plant, is another one of Pittsburgh's biggest polluters - U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works. The Clairton community is about 38 percent African American, and the per capita income for African Americans averages around $15,000. The monitor nearest that plant has put Allegheny County in non-attainment for fine particle pollution.

"We want them to know that we want strong regulations on the big power plants and that we want a clean environment," Alexander said. "Environmental justice is about just making sure that our communities are going to be green, that we’re taking care of our communities in a clean way. Pittsburgh is known for having our steel mills and our pollution." 

Hearings last until 5 p.m. today, but according to the EPA's website, all speaking times have been assigned.

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Posted By on Mon, Oct 12, 2015 at 3:58 PM

click to enlarge Barney Oursler, executive director of Pittsburgh UNITED, a member of the Paid Sick Days Coalition, welcomes the small crowd in Market Square. - PHOTO BY ASHLEY  MURRAY
Photo by Ashley Murray
Barney Oursler, executive director of Pittsburgh UNITED, a member of the Paid Sick Days Coalition, welcomes the small crowd in Market Square.
Today the Paid Sick Days Coalition, a cohort of 25 organizations that advocated for Pittsburgh's sick-day legislation, which passed almost unanimously in early August,  gathered in Market Square to mark 90 days until the law goes into effect. (The 90-day time frame, specified in the bill, begins when the city controller's office posts the regulations for employers, which can now be found here.)

"We are excited because this is going to benefit 50,000 workers in the city," Barney Oursler, executive director of Pittsburgh UNITED, told the small group of advocates and members of the media.

Beginning Jan. 11, employees in the city of Pittsburgh can begin accruing sick time to use for their own illnesses or to care for sick children or other family members.

Getting the word out about these regulations is now the task of the coalition, and members handed out educational fliers and held signs with the hashtag 
click to enlarge Hannah Vantassel of Pittsburgh UNITED, one of the member groups of the Paid Sick Days Coalition, holds a sign in Market Square to raise awareness of the city's new mandatory sick-days legislation. - PHOTO BY ASHLEY MURRAY
Photo by Ashley Murray
Hannah Vantassel of Pittsburgh UNITED, one of the member groups of the Paid Sick Days Coalition, holds a sign in Market Square to raise awareness of the city's new mandatory sick-days legislation.

"The only way people will be able to use their paid sick days is if they know about it," says Alex Wallach Hanson, of Pittsburgh UNITED.

Employers are required to post signs detailing the law's specifics where workers will easily see them.

Employees at companies and organizations with 15 or more workers will begin accruing one hour of paid sick time for every 35 hours worked and can accrue up to 40 total paid sick-time hours. Employees at workplaces with fewer than 15 workers can begin accruing sick time at the same rate, but they can accrue only 24 hours of unpaid sick time within the first year of the ordinance. After that, they can begin earning paid sick time — up to 24 hours, or three days. Employers are permitted to allow a quicker accrual rate or more total paid sick time.

"For very small businesses, their thought was, 'This is going to hit us right away,'" says Councilor Corey O'Connor, the chief sponsor of the bill. "I got a lot of calls to my office [from] small consignment shops, restaurants and even from some large companies that are part of the Chamber of Commerce."  O'Connor said once the new regulations were explained, those businesses were less opposed to the law than they had initially been. "If you already have this [sick time], then you're exempt."

But on Sept. 21, the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association — whose chairman has been vehemently opposed to the legislation since its inception — and a number of city businesses and restaurants, including Church Brew Works, Rita's Italian Ice and Modern Cafe, filed a lawsuit against the city for overstepping its municipal authority. 
click to enlarge Members of the Paid Sick Days Coalition take turns dressing as "Sam the Snot" to do community outreach on the city's paid sick-days legislation, which the city and advocacy organization hail as a public-health issue. - PHOTO BY ASHLEY MURRAY
Photo by Ashley Murray
Members of the Paid Sick Days Coalition take turns dressing as "Sam the Snot" to do community outreach on the city's paid sick-days legislation, which the city and advocacy organization hail as a public-health issue.

"In attempting to provide a one-size-fits-all mandate to every business within the City regarding sick leave, the City of Pittsburgh has not only ignored the individual business realities facing employers, but has violated the statutory limits on its power," the complaint reads.

O'Connor says the city will fight for the law. "We take it as a moral issue," he says. "We've seen other cities that fought [for mandatory sick time] and won. As a city, we're doing the right thing for workers."

The Service Employees International Union of Pennsylvania, a party of the coalition, has since joined the case as a defendant.

Coalition members will continue to hand out education fliers in public locations in the coming weeks.  They will be at the Wood Street T Station today beginning at 4:30 p.m.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Posted By on Wed, Sep 2, 2015 at 4:56 PM

click to enlarge Julia Johnson consoles Tomi Lynn Harris, whose son died in custody of the Allegheny County Jail in January. - PHOTO BY THEO SCHWARZ
Photo by Theo Schwarz
Julia Johnson consoles Tomi Lynn Harris, whose son died in custody of the Allegheny County Jail in January.
There is no doubting that most people in Allegheny County are happy to see Corizon pack up and leave as health-care provider for the the county jail. Eleven people died during the private health-care company's two year tenure, even though inmates only spend an average of 58 days within the jail’s confines.

While most might think it a time to celebrate, the Allegheny County Jail Health Justice Project chose the day Corizon left, September 1, as a day to mourn.

“It is too little too late,” says activist Julia Johnson of the justice project. “We cannot bring back the lives of those lost at the county jail.”

The vigil was held in the plaza in front of the jail, where candles were lit in the hot afternoon sun and the names of all those who have died in the jail were read aloud.

Tomi Lynn Harris, whose son Frank Smart died in custody at ACJ in January, spoke to the crowd of 20, demanding fair treatment of inmates in the jail.

“We need people to care about people in the jail,” says Harris. 

According to Harris, her son was only in jail custody for less than a day and alleges that he died because the staff refused to provide him with his seizure medication.

Before the vigil, the justice project held a press conference in the courtyard of the County Courthouse to remind officials that they are not content just because Corizon is no longer involved at the jail. As of yesterday, health care at the jail will be run under the county's direct supervision, with partnering efforts from Allegheny Health Network.

Johnson says that county officials continue to scapegoat Corizon and believes that officials should be held accountable for their actions involved in health care at the jail. She is calling for warden Orlando Harper to be fired and for a full investigation of the jail staff to determine who else contributed to the inadequate health standards.

“We have no faith or trust in county government right now to maintain medical standards,” says Johnson. “Many of the problems were caused by county governments poor standards.”

Before the vigil, Johnson delivered a petition of more than 1,700 signatures to county officials calling for the firing of warden Harper.

Allegheny County Communications Director Amie Downs sent this statement to CP in response to the petition: “Warden Harper continues to have the full faith and confidence of the administration and will remain in place at the Allegheny County Jail.”

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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Posted By on Tue, Aug 4, 2015 at 3:50 PM

click to enlarge Donora resident Viktoryia Maroz is part of an effort to bring a lawsuit against  a Monessen plant owned by ArcelorMittal USA. - PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
Photo by Ryan Deto
Donora resident Viktoryia Maroz is part of an effort to bring a lawsuit against a Monessen plant owned by ArcelorMittal USA.
Viktoryia Maroz, of Donora, a small town on the banks of the Monongahela River in Washington County, awoke at 1:30 a.m. last Saturday to a powerful stench — a smell she describes as a mix of rotten eggs and burning rubber. The culprit, she says, are fumes emanating from a coal-processing plant in neighboring Monessen.

“Even if I have the windows and doors closed, I still smell it,” says Maroz. "It is worse starting at 5 p.m. and on the weekends."

Maroz has filed dozens of complaints with the plant’s owner, ArcelorMittal USA, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the federal Environmental Protection Agency since the plant reopened in April 2014. Maroz says she has not noticed any improvement since filing her complaints, even though tests near her home have shown that contaminants, such as arsenic, have been found in the air.

“”I felt so lost, I felt like I had done it all, but there wasn’t anything being done to resolve the situation,” says Maroz.

Now, she has joined forces with other community members and the citizen-based nonprofit PennEnvironment to take the steps to form a lawsuit against AcelorMittal USA. The Chicago-based steel company is owned by the multinational Luxembourg-based AcelorMittal S.A. and is the world’s largest producer of steel.

As part of a press conference in front of the U.S. Federal Courthouse on Grant Street, PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur announced today that the “citizen suit” allows for private individuals and organizations to sue violators in federal court, after providing 60 days notice of their intent. The notice was filed yesterday.

“I’ve met with residents who live in towns all around the this plant, Donora, Monongahela, etc.,” says Masur. “Their stories about air pollution from this facility are gut-wrenching.”

PennEnvironment has compiled a list of about 80 citizen complaints to the DEP since the plant re-opened in 2014. According to a November 2014 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article, the DEP cited the plant six times for illegal emissions over an eight-month period in 2014.

Masur adds that the plant has violated the Clean Air Act hundreds of times since it restarted.

“It is outrageous that the world’s largest steel company cannot comply with our clean-air laws,” says Masur.

The National Environmental Law Center (NELC) is partnering with PennEnvironment to assist in legal action against the steel giant. Josh Kratka, attorney for NELC, says the suit is not seeking individual damages, and they are merely “trying to get [AcelorMittal] to comply with the law.”

Kratka adds that the plant’s key air-pollution control system has been offline for a while, but the company is continuing to process coal anyway. Kratka says this is a direct violation of the Clean Air Act.

Masur hopes that a full-blown lawsuit does not have to be filed. He is confident that the 60-day waiting period will produce some sit-down meetings with the AcelorMittal, and solutions will be sought.

However, if negotiations fail, PennEnvironment is ready to force litigation to ensure the steel producer’s compliance. Masur adds that they could possibly seek on-going “mandatory minimum penalties” to be enforced when the company falls out of compliance.

Further, Masur thinks those penalties should help to fund the DEP, so that the state agency can keep a better watch on companies that are breaking the rules.

“Thousands of companies in Pennsylvania are not violating anything,” says Masur. “The DEP should not let loose the ones who are breaking the law. They should not let them slide by.”

UPDATE, 4:45 p.m.: An ArcelorMittal spokesperson sent the following statement to City Paper this afternoon:

“ArcelorMittal just learned of this potential lawsuit from PennEnvironment today. ArcelorMittal takes our environmental performance seriously. We are disappointed by the performance record of the Monessen coke plant since the facility’s May 2014 restart as we have been challenged by issues such as opacity exceedances at the No. 1 battery combustion stack. We have been working closely with regulatory authorities to address the cause of those exceedances as well as other concerns. In June 2015, we expedited a desulfurization system outage to improve the performance of the operation. In mid-July, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection performed an inspection and conducted visible emissions readings of the No.1 battery combustion stack, which demonstrated compliance with the opacity standards.

"We are committed to ensuring that the recent improvements prevent future occurrences and maintain compliance levels. We know that being a trusted and responsible user of our natural resources is the price of admission in today’s metals and mining business, and we are committed to achieving and maintaining full compliance with all environmental permits at all of our locations.”

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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Posted By and on Thu, May 28, 2015 at 4:50 PM

click to enlarge Tomi Lynn Harris, whose son died at the Allegheny County Jail earlier this year, is demanding that the warden step down. - PHOTO BY ASHLEY MURRAY
Photo by Ashley Murray
Tomi Lynn Harris, whose son died at the Allegheny County Jail earlier this year, is demanding that the warden step down.

Today more than a dozen gathered in front of the Allegheny County Jail to protest the recent deaths of inmates and health-care issues at the facility. 

"In this past year alone several people have died because they did not receive the medicine they demanded," said protest organizer Julia Johnson.

Last week, two inmates of the Allegheny County Jail, both in their 20s, died on the same day, bringing the total inmate deaths for 2015 to four. As a result, on May 22, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced the county would not be renewing their contract with Tennessee-based  Corizon Health, the company that has been charged with overseeing health care at the jail since September 2013.  Prior to that, a nonprofit out of the county's health department managed health care at the jail.

"As we indicated last Friday, we have both verbally and in writing notified Corizon that we will not be extending our contract and our relationship with them [will] end August 31 of this year," county spokesperson Amie Downs said via email.

But protesters say the county executive's actions don't go far enough. They're calling on the county to hire an interim medical director and asking that community input be included in the selection of a new health-care provider. They are also demanding the immediate removal of jail warden Orlando Harper. 

Video by Ashley Murray

Following their protest, the group took their list of demands to the county executive's office where they were met by two police officers. Two representatives were allowed to meet with Fitzgerald's chief of staff.

"It's clear from this conversation that they don't want transparency — that they want to have these conversations behind closed doors," said Johnson. 

Seven inmates died in 2014, and a January 2015 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article that reported the death of a 62-year-old inmate who spent 10 days at the jail, also reported that the Allegheny County Jail's mortality rate is double the average of jails nationally.

That statistic has become a rallying point for the ACJ Health Justice Project, which formed earlier this year.

At the protest, the group heard from Tomi Lynn Harris, the mother of 39-year-old Frank Smart who died in custody at ACJ in January. According to Harris, her son died because the staff at ACJ refused to provide him with seizure medication.

"The warden needs to step down. This happened under his watch," Harris said. "My son begged for his medicine. My son was murdered."

The group also heard from Lynne Boley, the mother of a current ACJ inmate who says her son is not receiving adequate medical care to treat his diabetes.

"Corizon may not kill my child," said Boley. "My son does not have a death sentence. Corizon may not carry it out by medical neglect."

In April, City Paper reported that the state American Civil Liberties Union had opened an investigation into whether HIV/AIDS patients were getting access to medication. Another jail inmate died a few weeks later.

Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, a staff attorney at the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, which provides legal assistance to low-income inmates whose constitutional rights have been violated, told CP in April that the Allegheny County Jail has "probably the worst health care in the state [she's] seen when it comes to prisons and jails."

Corizon's contract expires at the end of August. The private management company and medical staff at the jail just reached their first labor agreement at the end of April.  

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Posted By on Wed, Mar 25, 2015 at 12:00 PM

The executive director of The 8th Amendment Project speaks on Pitt’s campus tomorrow night (March 26).

Henderson Hill’s talk is titled "Broken Beyond Repair: Pennsylvania Illuminates the Nation's Abandonment of the Death Penalty. It comes in the wake of Gov. Tom Wolf’s recent suspension of capital punishment here.

Hill, based in North Carolina, is a former public defender in Washington, D.C., and former executive director of the Federal Defenders of Western North Carolina. He also founded the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

Hill's talk is sponsored by groups including Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the National Lawyers’ Guild, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Amnesty International Pittsburgh Group 39.

The talk, which is free, takes place at 7 p.m. in Room 109 of the Barco Law Building, 3900 Forbes Ave., in Oakland.

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