Action for the air we breathe
by Robert Vagt
What better forum could there be than the blog soapbox of the city’s community foundation to shout-out a heartfelt thank you to all those who braved yesterday’s rain and chill to attend the launch of the Breathe Project at Pittsburgh’s Children’s Museum?
While the weather was less than desirable, the purpose of the event was to celebrate the start of the journey toward a sunnier, cleaner-air future for the region. That point was underscored at the event where the cheerful voices of museum-visiting children mixed in with the determined voices of leaders from every sector.
From those faces and voices to the thousands of others who were cheering us on in spirit, it could not be more clear that this initiative represents a broad cross-section of the region. The Breathe Project Coalition is made up of people and organizations with different points of view and different opinions about how best to deal with the air-quality problem. Some have a history of being more at arm’s length from one another rather than arm-in-arm on the air issue.
We expect the working relationships of the coalition to be different, and we have witnessed it already. Every member has subscribed to two basic principles: We live in a region that is anchored by one of the world’s most wonderful cities, with a reputation for many environmental quality-of-life achievements; but we also recognize that the scientific evidence shows the air we breathe does not measure up to the high standard of excellence set by so many other aspects of our great city.
The coalition intends to set goals, encourage individual and corporate action, and measure results.
The type of action envisioned is exemplified by the recent agreement between McConway & Torley, a Lawrenceville foundry employing 273 area residents, and the Group Against Smog and Pollution.
In January, the Allegheny County Health Department issued an air permit allowing reactivation of a furnace at the foundry. GASP appealed the permit, citing concerns about the potential emissions of heavy metals. M&T officials approached GASP in hopes of working together on a solution. The result is an agreement to employ supplemental emission controls beyond those required by the Environmental Protection Agency and the county health department.
This example shows that people with different perspectives can work together and come to agreement around difficult and complicated matters. Yet another lesson is that air quality is not hostage to economic activity.
But the coalition is also about the power of individuals to make a difference.
Peter Bartholomew, a junior in Pittsburgh CAPA, has had asthma since childhood. He spoke yesterday about his Healthy School Bus Campaign that led the district to require at least 85 percent of school buses be equipped with diesel particulate filters by June 2014.
It is our hope that this new incarnation of the spirit and civic pride that inspired Pittsburghers 65 years ago to clear the air of visible pollution will be present in the 40 organizations and several hundred individuals who have joined this effort so far.
As I am occupying the Pittsburgh Foundation’s electromagnetic real estate, a word about the support of the philanthropic community in this effort: I was overwhelmed by the presence of so many foundation leaders at the gathering, beginning with Pittsburgh Foundation CEO Grant Oliphant up front; and this spoke volumes about commitment, both financial and philosophical, to improving our air. However, each of us realizes that it is not our grants but the actions and leadership of individuals in this region which will move the needle on this issue. I believe we are going to do it.