Big environmental challenges face incoming Peduto administration | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Big environmental challenges face incoming Peduto administration

"What really matters are the policies going forward."

Erin Copeland, a senior restoration ecologist for Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, at Panther Hollow Lake, which is prone to flooding
Erin Copeland, a senior restoration ecologist for Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, at Panther Hollow Lake, which is prone to flooding

Tucked away in Schenley Park, Panther Hollow Lake looks idyllic — at least from a distance. Water inundates it during heavy rainfall, picking up sediment and the runoff from impervious surfaces — roofs, parking lots, and roads — located in neighborhoods upstream.

According to the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the county's sanitary authority, in 2012, 82.6 million gallons flowed into and out of Panther Hollow Lake. The system can only handle so much before you get a dirty lake and soggy basements in the businesses and houses just downstream, and eventually sewage overflowing into the three rivers. Once a place for families to ride paddleboats, the lake is now cloudy and clogged.

"When I was teenager, we used to go ice-skating there. It was a beautiful place," says Raymond Baum, 69, president of the Squirrel Hill Coalition and an advocate for the watershed restoration. But now, "It's a big mess, anytime there's a storm event."

For the lake itself, a solution might be at hand: The city, the county and private foundations all plan to finance a restoration effort that begins next year. "You can't do anything, especially on a large scale, without working with these partners," says Erin Copeland, senior restoration ecologist at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. "They own the land, they own the pipes, they treat the water. ...[T]hat partnership piece, this is where the solution is coming from."

But the lake is also a microcosm for broader environmental challenges that mayor-elect Bill Peduto must face. While the city has recovered from the worst excesses of the industrial era, bureaucratic hurdles and political squabbling have hampered some efforts — including those Peduto himself has authored. And despite new "green buildings" and other advances, the city's recent environmental record is something of a mixed bag.

The 2011 "U.S. and Canada Green City Index," sponsored by Siemens, placed Pittsburgh 24th out of 27 cities. This September, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy ranked the Steel City 25th out of 34 cities. Local officials and the Green Building Alliance, a major backer of green initiatives in Pittsburgh, have challenged the report's methodology, but some observers say they suggest there's work to be done.

"The current situation is a classic case of glass half full or half empty," says Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the Keystone Research Center. "What really matters are the policies going forward and what the rankings will be 10 years from now ... and a possible partnership between the new mayor and county executive."


Of the 100 policies Peduto campaigned on for mayor this year, more than a quarter focused on sustainability. And his track record reflects a longstanding interest in the issue. In 2006, he co-chaired Pittsburgh's first Green Government Task Force, and has served on the city's Sustainability Commission along with eight other mayor-appointed city officials.

"Bill was the politician that was at all of the climate-action meetings," says Jim Sloss, the city's energy-and-utilities manager and one of two employees in its Office of Sustainability and Energy Efficiency.

But when Peduto is sworn in on Jan. 6, his first challenge might be to pick up on initiatives that have idled in recent years.

 Three years ago, Peduto and several other council members sponsored bills tying development subsidies to sustainability practices. One measure was the Clean Air Act of 2010, which aimed to reduce pollution from construction sites by requiring lower emissions from diesel engines. A stormwater management ordinance, meanwhile, was aimed at mitigating runoff from parking lots or other "impervious surfaces" that shed water. Another bill set wage requirements for those who would be employed at some developments.

The bills were "put together by [a] coalition of labor unions, environmental groups, and faith-based and community organizations," says Dan Gilman, who serves as Peduto's city-council chief of staff and who will replace him as council's District 8 representative. "The great thing was, it was one of the first times you saw labor unions lined up for clean air and environmental groups lined up for a prevailing wage."

"What I like about him is he's reaching out to everyone," says Kimberly Chapman, a resident of East Liberty and member of Action United, an advocacy group for low- and moderate-income residents.

But since the bill passed in July 2011, the clean-air initiative has idled. The bill required that regulations implementing the ordinance would be publicized within six months, but Gilman says Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration "opposed all three pieces of legislation and never put force behind them." The regulations include standards for the retrofit technology for diesel-fueled construction equipment and the procedures for verifying them.

Administration officials deny that the bills were being ignored. According to City Solicitor Daniel Regan, the regulations were finalized just this past month.

"This is a complicated piece of legislation," Regan says. "There were a number of parties involved internally and externally that worked on drafting those."  

But the delay has hindered the process, says City Controller Michael Lamb, who is tasked with implementing the requirements.

"We've been working on ways we can inform construction sites and contractors and have been identifying ways they can move forward with retrofitting new [pollution-control] equipment," Lamb says. "But without the regulations in place, it's tough to do."

"Letting this important legislation languish for over two years does not shout, ‘I support this,'" says Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution.

Barney Oursler, executive director of Pittsburgh United, which led the fight for the bills, says it's not clear that the stormwater ordinance is being enforced, either.

"[The current administration] tells us it's being complied with, but we don't have any comfort that they're actually doing anything with it," Oursler says. "So we're really looking forward to the new administration and transparency."

The city and its water authority are currently being sued by PennFuture for not enforcing the ordinance at a partially publicly funded development by the Buncher Company in the Strip District.

Regan says his office is defending the city on the grounds that it is enforcing the ordinance.

The lawsuit, filed in 2012, has yet to go to trial. PennFuture CEO George Jugovic says that with the administration turning over in January, it may not be necessary. "Given that [Peduto] sponsored it, I think we'll have an opportunity to sit down and settle it. All we're asking for is that the administration enforce an ordinance that was adopted by council."

Still, the outgoing administration can point to some accomplishments. It has, for example, joined with Allegheny County and other government agencies to form the Western Pennsylvania Energy Consortium, which pools resources to purchase electricity at discount rates — with at least 25 percent of that power coming from renewable sources. That source is mostly wind energy produced in Somerset County, according to Sloss' sustainability office.

The office has also overseen the Green Initiatives Trust Fund, which was created in 2008 with $100,000 in seed money from the operating budget. The fund invests in sustainability initiatives, like an effort to light streets with energy-efficient LED bulbs. Any money saved by those investments goes back into the trust for more sustainability efforts. The city has installed more than 40,000 streetlights with LED bulbs so far, says Sloss, saving $120,000 in reduced electricity costs.

"I would say during the Ravenstahl administration, this was the one program they [Peduto and Ravenstahl] actually came together on," Sloss says.


The need for cooperation will be far greater when the region confronts the overhaul of its sewer system.

The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) is under a federal court order to clean up its act by preventing sewage from being dumped into rivers and other waterways. Such discharges happen when rainstorms overwhelm the sewer infrastructure: Water from storm drains backs into sewer pipes and untreated sewage spills from outlets into area waterways.

Advocates want the solution to include investments in sustainable infrastructure, and more green solutions like water gardens. But because ALCOSAN handles discharges from the city and 82 other county municipalities, good relationships between local governments are key.

"We're really going to have to work together," says Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was a highly visible supporter of Peduto's campaign from the outset, and backed the election bids of some Peduto allies on council. "It's good we have a new mayor and council coming in, and on county council we have a lot of cooperation as well," he says. "I'm optimistic."

Expectations are high among voters as well. According to a recent survey by regional-indicators organization PittsburghTODAY (an arm of the University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social and Urban Research), 78 percent surveyed in the Pittsburgh region think government should be responsible for taking the lead on the environmental agenda.

Peduto has already appointed an intriguing figure to the new post of chief innovation and performance officer. Debra Lam is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who settled in the city's North Hills. Her resume includes a stint at the State Department and as a sustainability integrator for a London-based engineering design consultancy firm. For her senior thesis at the University of California-Berkeley, she compared environmental policies in the U.S. and China.

"What I bring to the city and mayor is a very wide breadth of experience and understanding in how cities work around the world," Lam says.

Lam will be Sloss' new boss in the City's Office of Sustainability and Energy Efficiency. "There are going to be some changes and maybe a more defined set of goals," Sloss says, "but it's a smooth transition."

Lam's skills as a former sustainability integrator might very well be put to good use as Peduto aims to engage various sectors and cross old city-county divisions for sustainability initiatives.

"One of the most important things is that the mayor has to have a vision and drive this," Lam says. "It needs to come from the top, and the good thing is we have someone who really cares about sustainability for all, not just certain neighborhoods, but something all neighborhoods can actively participate in."