US Steel Clairton Coke Works Factory, in Clairton PA, the alrgest coking factory in the nation.
Image credit: Roy Luck on 

“We were actually at a time where it was not only critical but necessary to bring forth the Black voices: the stories of those who have been exploited, erased, and extracted from, and invisibilized.” That’s how Bishop Marcia Dinkins described the Black Appalachian Coalition, the nonprofit she founded in 2021.

The Black Appalachian Coalition’s mission is to change how people think about Appalachia, bringing Black Appalachians to the forefront of the narrative and giving a platform to their experiences. The Black Appalachian Coalition (BLAC) came about after Dinkins, who currently serves as the nonprofit’s executive director, found herself participating in conversations in her Appalachian community, where she looked around and found few other Black voices. She set out to create a space where this gap could be filled.

With the Biden administration’s pledged commitments to climate change, community revitalization, and investments in infrastructure and economic recovery, BLAC provides a model for utilizing government funding to uplift Black communities.

A Critical Hub for Black Appalachians

One of Dinkins’s initial priorities was to establish financial potential. As she said in an interview, “Not only would we look at amplifying [Black] voices and stories and creating the space, but also bringing forth an opportunity for resources to be allocated to historically, economically, and environmentally divested communities….One of the ways we can make federal changes is with those federal dollars in the communities.”

Since its initial launch two years ago, BLAC has become a crucial headquarters for Black Appalachians. BLAC hosted a series of listening sessions across Appalachia, launched a podcast showcasing the voices of community leaders, and, as part of their ongoing activism surrounding environmental racism in Appalachia, held a five-part “Lunch & Learn” series where the public could tune in virtually and learn from experts about the effects of petrochemicals on Black communities in the region.

Although the negative effects of air pollution are widely researched, the financial ties held by major contributors to pollution, such as US Steel, often leave those affected feeling powerless.

BLAC has also been a key partner in bringing environmental justice resources and awareness to Clairton, PA. Dinkins recalled speaking to a woman in her sixties from the area during the “Lunch & Learn” series. The woman’s sisters had died, and she did not realize the health impact petrochemicals may have had on her family until the BLAC series. The woman told her, “If I knew what I knew today, if I had the space that I had today, I could’ve probably saved my sisters’ lives.”

A Designated Environmental Justice Community

Clairton, an industrial city once known as the “Coke Capital of the World” for producing coke, a key component in creating steel, was founded in 1903 in Allegheny County, PA. Clairton is a designated environmental justice community, as determined by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. A designated environmental justice community is defined as an area where 20 percent or more of the residents live in poverty and at least 30 percent of residents identify as minorities. Sitting 12 miles from Pittsburgh, Clairton has a population of 8,493, and nearly 40 percent of its residents are Black.

The problem of environmental racism is widespread: according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, 71 percent of African Americans live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards, compared to 58 percent of non-Hispanic Whites. Although the negative effects of air pollution are widely researched, the financial ties held by major contributors to pollution, such as US Steel, often leave those affected feeling powerless.

As Dinkins said, “Who’s driving the narrative is really who has the power. And so, we saw [the Black Appalachian Coalition] as a way to say, we need to tell the history behind this story or behind the narrative, as well as take the people who have always been at the back of the line and bring them to the front of the line.”

“What moves us forward…is the hope and healing aspect. Creating a different future, a different culture.”

US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works is North America’s largest producer of coke. The plant makes 13,000 tons of coke per day and is Allegheny County’s largest single source of several pollutants. Although a major employer in the area, employing 3,000 people, the Clairton Coke Works is also an environmental and health risk for local residents. As of 2022, the plant had accrued over $9 million in fines from the Allegheny County Department of Health related to the plant’s air pollution violations.

Last October, the EPA granted objections to the Clairton Coke Works’ operating permit and ordered the Allegheny County Health Department to ensure the permit includes a compliance schedule. And in late January, US Steel settled a federal lawsuit regarding a 2018 fire. As a result, the Clairton Coke Works will commit $19.5 million to upgrade coal ovens and $4.5 million to support local communities.

This is just one victory for the people of Clairton. As Kidest Gebre, communications and campaign Manager of BLAC, said in an interview, “What moves us forward…is the hope and healing aspect. Creating a different future, a different culture around Clairton. Not just talking about the coke plant but highlighting the harms on the people from the coke plant and the need for our health department to take action.”

BLAC has been a watchdog and an advocate as the Clairton Coke Works enters its new era of accountability from the community, insisting that the impacts of the plant include not only pollutive particles but also poor mental and physical health, limitations on children’s quality of life, neglectful politicians and leaders, and an increase in violence, directly correlating to pollution levels.

In late November, BLAC launched a petition calling for action in the community. They had three specific asks: transparency and accountability around US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works permit, educational meetings in Clairton hosted by the Allegheny County Health Department, and a public hearing scheduled by the health department to gather feedback regarding the plant’s amended air quality permit. Two public hearings were held in January, despite calls to postpone the meetings in light of US Steel’s sale to Japanese company Nippon Steel.

BLAC partnered with the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), a nonprofit based in southwestern Pennsylvania working to improve air quality, to demand these changes. The group previously petitioned the EPA to reject US Steel’s air quality permit, which led to a September order requiring testing, monitoring, and reporting. At that time, the groupsere joined by the environmental groups PennFuture, Environmental Integrity Project, and Clean Air Council. The EPA sided with the environmental groups on the basis that the permit was not in compliance with the Clean Air Act. Now, the EPA has ordered Allegheny County to rewrite its proposed permit.

You’re living in a state of demise, not because you choose to. It was forced upon you and you had no choice.”

The Fight for Future Generations

Although a 2023 report by the American Lung Association bumped the Pittsburgh Metro Region up to a “C” grade from its former “F” for ozone smog, the area continues to rank among the worst regions in the country for 24-hour and year-round particle pollution, as the 20th worst and 14th worst respectively. The pollutants in question include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and several hazardous air pollutants, including benzene.

BLAC is working to improve the quality of life for Clairton residents overall. Dinkins shared that through listening sessions, she realized that the issues impacting Clairton had been happening for years without change. She wanted to allow Black residents to have an actionable part in the shifts in their community. Dinkins cited the maternal mortality rate, high rates of asthma in children, and Clairton’s history as a food desert as obstacles for residents.

With the standing fines from the Allegheny County Department of Health and the ongoing uncertainty around the sale of US Steel, BLAC is ensuring that the voices of Clairton are heard loud and clear. According to Dinkins, “We have to tell the story of Clairton. We have to bring you all to the forefront so that people realize and recognize that you’re living in a state of demise, not because you choose to. It was forced upon you and you had no choice.”

As BLAC continues to raise the voices of the community and push back against the detrimental effects of the plant on Clairton residents, it’s also creating awareness of the thousands of stories and lived experiences of residents and Black Appalachians. By bringing real-life narratives to the forefront of the discussion, BLAC aims to help write a different future for the community.