Clairton resident Pamela Lee stood in Frankie Pace Park on Wednesday and wistfully recalled the colorful drawings she made as a child.

“It was blue skies, it was a big sun in the corner and green, green grass,” she said. “And of course, we had our happy stick family.”

Oh, if it were only so in her Monongahela River town, located near the Clairton Coke Works, North America’s largest producer of one of the key components of steelmaking.

Lee’s reality? She told a group of about 60 people gathered for a rally in the park that connects Downtown with the Lower Hill District to discuss the health hazards associated with the fossil fuels industry that her city’s streets are smoky and smog-filled. The smell, she said, causes her to feel ill.

“I always felt that when I moved to Clairton, somebody should have welcomed me with an air filter,” she said.

Wednesday’s rally took place near the MetCoke World Summit, a two-day conference for the coal, coke and steel industry, held at the DoubleTree hotel. Organizations and residents addressed a range of threats — from lead in drinking water to air pollution to the hazards of transporting chemicals associated with the fossil fuel industry. Speakers represented both urban and rural communities, including East Palestine, Ohio, site of a Norfolk Southern toxic train derailment in February.

Lee, the first speaker, ended her short talk with a series of questions that seemed to sum up the day’s theme: “Just when are we going to have common sense and put human life first? When are we going to put human life over profit? When are we going to stop polluting God’s earth?”

Here are a few highlights:

Jami Wallace of East Palestine, Ohio. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

This is not a red issue. It is not a blue issue. It is an issue of human lives. If you don’t think this can happen in your backyard next, you’re wrong. We didn’t think it would happen in our community. And we’re going to keep fighting for our community so this never happens in your community. 

— Jami Wallace, president of Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment
and a lifelong resident of the village

Nickole Nesby, environmental justice organizer for 412 Justice and former mayor of Duquesne. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

As we know from Flint, Michigan, lead levels in children at 3% cause permanent neurological damage. Yet in the city of Duquesne our children’s lead levels are averaging 7%, and the county is just deciding to get involved. As a result of these high lead levels in our children, it causes permanent neurological damage, and in adults and adolescents it causes them to be violent.

We’ve known this, and the studies are here. According to Allegheny County Health and Human Services, 33% of our school-age children have been diagnosed with a learning disability. Regardless of your sex or race or color, it’s our government’s responsibility to ensure that we have drinkable water and breathable air.

— Nickole Nesby, environmental justice organizer for 412 Justice
and former mayor of Duquesne

Daren Gamble of East Palestine. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

I come here full of disgust. First, I’m disgusted with Norfolk Southern, the responsible party for all this, and their brazen ability to throw money around to buy our town. … I’m disgusted with our community, that we are at each other’s throats over this whole thing. I’m disgusted with the EPA, which has literally done nothing to help people affected by this tragedy. At last count there are still 200 families that are temporarily relocated because of this disaster.

— Daren Gamble, board member of Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment, a retired union bricklayer and a lifelong East Palestine resident whose family has spent the past eight months in an Airbnb because his wife gets sick when she’s in their home

Curtis Da’Von, southwestern Pennsylvania organizing director of Clean Water Action. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

There’s a lead problem already in the Mon Valley. Here’s what we know: No level of lead is safe. It causes  ADHD, low IQ, and it causes learning and behavior problems, all elements the Mon Valley and other areas suffer from. It’s also been reported that children from small towns around Pittsburgh have higher rates of asthma cases than anywhere else in the United States. Think about that. It’s horrible.

— Curtis Da’Von, southwestern Pennsylvania organizing director of Clean Water Action

Hilary Flint of Enon Valley. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

I’ve had to obtain my own independent testing, which proved my home had vinyl chloride, ethyl hexyl acrylate and a variety of dioxins. I had to pay out of pocket for my own relocations, which meant I had to work a second job. I had to ask for help from family, friends and strangers to replace my belongings, which still smell like sweet bleach. … I had to move up my yearly cancer scans, which showed that I now have spots in my left lung and masses in my left ovary. Since February, I’ve had to live in fear, uncertainty and danger.

— Hilary Flint of Enon Valley, Pennsylvania, vice president of the Unity Council
for the East Palestine Train Derailment

Ilyas Khan of Sunrise Pittsburgh. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

I’m 19 years old. I grew up in western New York. Many people may know of western New York as the home of Love Joy Canal. The people who suffered from the corporate failures and political failures of people in power at Love Joy Canal have been injured systemically and physically through impacts on their health for the past 50 years, and now that’s happened to our community here as well, both in Ohio and Pennsylvania, through the ridiculous incompetence of Norfolk Southern and the subsequent denial by politicians of justice for people who are most affected. This is unacceptable.

— Ilyas Khan, organizer for the youth group Sunrise Pittsburgh

Tamara Freeze of East Palestine. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Norfolk Southern has stamped their name and logo everywhere in East Palestine, Ohio. Now this multibillion-dollar company is buying nearly every piece of real estate that is up for sale. Why? For what reason? Because they can? Is that part of [CEO] Alan Shaw’s “making it right?” Each property they purchase takes away from us a part of the legacy and sentiment of our hometown. They are erasing East Palestine, Ohio, bit by bit, right in front of us.

— Tamara Freeze, board member of Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment

Leslie Clague of Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

In 2026, Norfolk Southern is going to more than double the train traffic on this line — it’s about two blocks away from here, the Pittsburgh line. It goes straight through the city. There have never been double-stacked trains on this line, and now we’re going to get more than twice as many trains, and trains are longer and double stacked. It’s going through neighborhoods that don’t know it’s coming.

This is 40% of Pittsburgh residents who face this increase. This goes by Shadyside Hospital; it goes by Google; it goes by Target. This is right in our neighborhoods.

— Leslie Clague of Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh

Jason Hallmark of Climate Reality Pittsburgh. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Something I personally focus on is the intersection of  living with a disability and the climate crises as well as pollution and disasters. The vast majority of people living with disabilities never make it home after they’re evacuated. The reason mostly is because, after being evacuated, they’re institutionalized and there’s never a way or plan to get them home. … Disability rights are an environmental justice issue and really needs to be treated as such.

— Jason Hallmark of Climate Reality Pittsburgh

NaTisha Washington, newly elected Wilkinsburg councilwoman. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

I hate that we’re called the most livable city because every statistic that I read is the opposite of that, especially for Black women that live in this community. And I hate that my own experience is being dismissed as a person who has asthma, who lives in the Mon Valley community, as a person who constantly has to hear about lives that are threatened because of environmental harms that people don’t seem to care enough about.

I love that we have people from all over the region to say this is not just an “us” issue here in Pittsburgh, this is an “all of us” issue, all around the world, around Pennsylvania.

— NaTisha Washington, newly elected Wilkinsburg councilwoman


Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at