Summer Lee addresses rally at County Building

Speaking at a rally in the courtyard of the historic Allegheny County Courthouse last Friday, candidate Summer Lee had blunt words for her fellow Democrats, some of whom were working in the offices close by.

“Democrats are supposed to be the ones who do stand for the people,” she said, “but we know in Allegheny County that that’s not the case.” 

Her solution? “If we want clean air and clean water, we have to get political.”

While lobbying and activism are both important, Lee said county residents’ most powerful tool to protect the environment is the ballot box. “One of our best options,” she said, “is to just get rid of politicians who aren’t for our environment.”

Lee was speaking at an event organized by PennEnvironment and the local chapter of The Sierra Club. The venue was chosen so that County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and other local officials could hear their chants. 

In a statement emailed to NEXTpittsburgh, the County Executive’s office pushed back against the criticism, pointing out that many of the most important regulations exist at the federal level.

Still, they said that the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) had been meeting regularly with concerned environmental groups, and praised the proactive approach of Dr. Karen Hacker, the department’s new director.

“Under Dr. Hacker’s leadership, ACHD has been given additional resources to hire more regulators to do air quality inspections, to build its legal team and to really push the bounds of what the department can do,” Fitzgerald’s office told us.

Speaking through a bullhorn just before Lee, Ashleigh Deemer — western Pennsylvania director for PennEnvironment — told the crowd they needed to build off of the public outrage and momentum that led to the “unprecedented” enforcement action against the Clairton Coke Works earlier this summer.

However, she cautioned that progress was not inevitable.

“We know they’re going to fight the order in court,” Deemer said. “There is a lot more work to be done. There are many more polluters to enforce. There are many more dollars to spend in communities like Braddock and Clairton to protect public health and level the playing field.”

For Lee, the issue hits especially close to home, as she grew up downwind of the Edgar Thomson steel mill in Braddock.

“Not only do we have in Allegheny County the worst air quality in the country outside of California,” she said, “but in Mon Valley, we have the worst air quality in the country.”

Addressing the rally, Lee also emphasized the need for greater diversity in the environmental movement. “People like me aren’t usually the ones who are here, but we’re the ones who are most affected.”

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh after the event, Lee returned to the main theme of her speech, saying the first step to mobilizing black voters would be to support and elect candidates who will take on industry allies at all levels of government. “If you’re not replacing those folks, and replacing the dirty money in our politics, then you’re not doing anything that’s going to be attractive to marginalized communities. We just don’t have time.”

“It’s a privileged class of folk that can even come to these rallies,” she said.

While she is still technically a candidate, Lee appears to be virtual lock to win her race for State Representative for District 34 this fall. Once she ascends to the State House, Lee says she will be pushing for stricter oversight of the steel industry and a moratorium on fracking.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.