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A fight over fracking at a Pennsylvania steel mill is forcing a reckoning among Democrats

The politics of fracking and energy policy in a state that sits on the second biggest natural gas reserves in the country is more nuanced than absolutist positions might indicate.

The U.S. Steel Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock, Pa., pictured in 2019.
The U.S. Steel Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock, Pa., pictured in 2019.Read moreGene J. Puskar / AP File

BRADDOCK, Pa. — About a year ago, Chardaé Jones finally had enough money to pay off some student loans and move out of her parents’ house into a third-floor apartment across the street from a steel mill that helped build America.

When Jones, 31, looked out her window at night at the mill Andrew Carnegie built 145 years ago, she wrote down what she saw and heard:

The wailing whistles and vicious vibrations
coming from the steel mill
sometimes sounds like the sky is crying
especially since the smoke is always
bellowing out
almost as if it was
the Earth begging for a break

Jones grew up in Braddock, a town of 2,114 people about 11 miles southeast of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River, and last year became mayor. She was used to the pollution. What she found more troubling was U.S. Steel’s plan, in the works now for more than two years, to lease 10 acres to a New Mexico-based oil and gas company to extract natural gas a mile beneath the surface using a controversial drilling technique known as fracking.

“A lot of this area is in a flood zone,” she said. “We’re near a river. It just seems like a recipe for disaster.”

As word spread, others grew suspicious of what the proposal might mean for public health. Some of them got elected to local and state office. And in January, a neighboring town revoked the gas company’s permit to build part of a well site on its land.

Opponents hope that might kill the proposal altogether — something that one prominent local Democratic politician, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, warns could cause U.S. Steel to shut down the mill and force mass layoffs, even as the company promises to invest more than $1 billion into the mill and another Pittsburgh-area facility to make them more energy efficient. The company says the on-site natural gas source would significantly reduce its costs at a moment when the steel industry has faced new struggles.

More than a decade into a natural gas boom that has driven down energy costs for consumers and literally reshaped the landscape with thousands of wells and pipelines carrying gas across the state, this pocket of Southwestern Pennsylvania is facing a reckoning over the issue. It comes as one of the leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders, has proposed a federal ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a technique for unlocking natural gas from rock formations like the Marcellus Shale with high-pressure injections of water, chemicals, and sand.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic front-runner, has resisted a ban but called for no more drilling on federal land. “We’ve got to take on the fossil-fuel industry,” Sanders chided Biden during a recent debate. “Your plan doesn’t do that.”

Some Democrats warn that a fracking ban would clear the way for President Donald Trump to again win the critical electoral battleground of Pennsylvania.

The debate over fracking has “turned into this binary choice: Either you’re pro-fracking and you’re evil and you want the world to burn, or you’re against it and like virtue-signaling," said Fetterman, who once campaigned as a fracking opponent but supports the proposed drilling here and warns its defeat would jeopardize 3,000 “family sustaining union jobs.”

“The truth is messy,” he said, speaking in his living room, where steam rising from the mill was visible through the window. “The biggest collision of those two [positions] in American politics is right here in Pennsylvania. It’s happening across the street there. And it’s happening anywhere else where you have a fringe of our party claiming you can walk away from all of this, and then at the same time lamenting: ‘Where did all the jobs go? Where did all the union jobs go?' Or you wonder, ‘Why are they voting for that crazy man in the red hat?’ Because he’s not trying to run my job out of existence."

As with much else in American life, tribalism and mistrust exacerbate tensions, especially when the stakes seem so high. Jobs might be at risk. If climate change is an urgent threat, the fracking opponents wonder what it says if their elected officials won’t take a stand in their own backyard.

“We can’t even have a conversation about the health impacts without you being accused of hating jobs,” said State Rep. Summer Lee, whose district includes Braddock. “That’s disingenuous. ... While these towns, while these people, while these workers who are in the midst of it may not be able to afford to think more long term, your politician is supposed to.”

Shale-industry jobs in Pennsylvania jumped from 9,143 in 2007 to 20,146 in 2016, an increase of 120%, according to a 2018 analysis by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That doesn’t include jobs indirectly linked to drilling. However, a glut of natural gas has driven down prices and slowed production. Chevron said last month it was getting out of the Appalachian basin and would eliminate 320 jobs in Pennsylvania.

The politics of fracking and energy policy in a state that sits on the second-biggest natural gas reserves in the country is more nuanced than absolutist positions might indicate. Last year in historically Republican Chester County, for example, Democrats took the courthouse for the first time ever, in part because of public anger over the Mariner East pipeline, which carries natural gas from Southwest Pennsylvania.

In Harrisburg, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s biggest second-term initiative — a $4.5 billion infrastructure plan that would borrow money against future tax revenues on natural gas drillers — is facing opposition from progressives who say it underwrites the state’s future on fossil fuels. The GOP-controlled legislature has long opposed a severance tax on drilling. The industry is one of the most powerful interest groups in state politics, having spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions.

And in Philadelphia, the sale of Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ bankrupt and shuttered oil refinery divided building trades unions and workers against progressive Democrats and climate activists.

Perhaps nowhere is the intraparty divide more pronounced than here in Allegheny County, where the Democratic mayor of Pittsburgh ignited a storm of controversy late last year by opposing “any additional petrochemical companies coming to Western Pennsylvania.”

And the fight in Braddock is laced with tensions over racial and social justice, as some in the minority communities surrounding the proposed well say they have missed out on Big Industry’s supposed economic benefits even as they have endured its health hazards.

It also shows how the grassroots energy on the left activated across the country by Donald Trump’s election sometimes results in conflict with old-guard party structures.

All of this is unfolding as Trump campaigns for reelection declaring he has “ended the war on American energy,” as he put it in a speech in Pittsburgh last fall. In 2016, Trump told Pennsylvania workers he would unleash an energy revolution and bring back coal jobs. He hasn’t revived coal. And however improbable some of his promises may have been, they are central to his message that he stands with the white working-class voters who helped elect him.

Pennsylvania voters are split on a fracking ban, with a narrow plurality (42%) opposing it, according to a February Muhlenberg College/Morning Call poll.

Fetterman, in the interview, motioned toward the steel mill and its two blast furnaces. “Look over there," he said. "You think you can power that off solar panels? It’s time to get real.”

A legacy of racial tension

In the steel industry’s heyday during the first half of the 20th century, Braddock was booming: 20,000 people lived in the 0.6 square-mile town, and the downtown on Braddock Avenue was filled with movie theaters and department stores. Vestiges of that time frame a wall in Summer Lee’s Braddock Avenue office. There are other signs of the borough’s decline: pictures of the 2010 demolition of a hospital down the street, a closing that resulted in the loss of hundreds of jobs, and baby pacifiers found in the rubble.

Lee, 32, took an interest in local politics in 2017. She’d recently worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Pennsylvania. After the election, her high school alma mater was in the news. The principal, who was white, allegedly threatened to assault a 14-year-old black student. A few months later, a school resource officer was accused of knocking another student’s tooth out. The school district would later settle those and other claims in federal court.

The Woodland Hills School District was created in the 1980s when a federal judge ordered the integration of racially segregated school districts in the Braddock area. The new district remained under court supervision until 2003 — when Lee was still in high school there.

She helped organize a successful campaign for school board, then decided to run herself in 2018, for the state House against a longtime incumbent. She planned to center her campaign around education. Then Lee, who grew up in North Braddock and now lives in nearby Swissvale, learned about the fracking proposal at U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works mill. “It was like the one thing that galvanized people,” she said.

“We already have among the worst air quality in the nation," Lee added, speaking before the coronavirus outbreak hit in Pennsylvania. "We already have disproportionately high asthma and cancer and respiratory illness rates. We already have blight. We already have poor infrastructure.”

The shale gas boom may have contributed $21 billion to the economy in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia between 2004 and 2016, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found. But most of those benefits flowed to rural areas, and the researchers also linked drilling to as many as 4,600 premature deaths associated with air pollution, and billions of dollars’ worth of environmental costs concentrated in urban areas.

“When the fracking proposal came, everybody was like, ‘That’s one more thing that’s going to harm us,’” Lee said.

U.S. Steel says the well would enhance the long-term competitiveness of its Pittsburgh-area facilities. The driller, Merrion Oil & Gas, says it would comply with state environmental regulations and hire local contractors to ensure “the safe and proper execution of the project while taking all steps necessary to be good environmental stewards.”

Lee defeated a 20-year incumbent with 68% of the vote in the 2018 Democratic primary. She became the first black woman ever to represent Southwestern Pennsylvania in the legislature.

The same year, Fetterman, who’d served as mayor of Braddock since 2006, was elected lieutenant governor.

A police shooting emboldens an activist

While Lee was waging her primary campaign, another political newcomer was mobilizing.

Jonathan Reyes, now 32, had been living in public housing his whole life, most recently in McKeesport. He not only was used to hearing gunshots every day, he knew firsthand how devastating they could be: In 2009, Reyes was eating pizza with a friend when, he says, a gun he carried for protection accidentally went off, killing his friend.

Reyes ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor involuntary-manslaughter charge.

A decade later, he had become active in antiviolence initiatives and was married with five kids.

“I didn’t want to live in a community where it’s no longer a shock when somebody gets shot,” said Reyes, who works at the Braddock Carnegie Library.

Reyes did some research and decided East Pittsburgh would be safer. He bought a house there in March 2018.

But on June 19, 2018, a white East Pittsburgh police officer shot and killed Antwon Rose II, an unarmed black teenager who had fled the scene of a traffic stop. Officer Michael Rosfeld was acquitted of homicide charges last year.

A bystander captured the shooting on video, bringing national attention.

Reyes, who later learned that Rose had taught his niece gymnastics, marched in protests.

Around the time of the shooting, Reyes also learned about the fracking proposal at U.S. Steel’s facility. The unconventional well site would span parts of three municipalities: North Versailles, East Pittsburgh, and North Braddock.

Reyes started knocking on neighbors’ doors and found that no one knew about the plan. He decided to run for the local council.

Reyes connected with other grassroots activists. By the time the group North Braddock Residents for Our Future caught wind of the new proposal, the towns of North Versailles and East Pittsburgh — persuaded by a new revenue opportunity — had already voted to approve permits for Merrion Oil & Gas. Merrion still needed permits from the state.

Activists, frustrated by what they described as a lack of transparency, held meetings, educated the public, and pressed for more information. Their prodding led to a March 2019 meeting held by the state DEP, U.S. Steel, and Merrion.

Officials explained to hundreds of residents that Merrion wanted to drill a well 6,700 feet underground and extend it laterally 10,000 feet, or almost two miles, into the Marcellus Shale formation.

Residents expressed concern that the proposed well was near a densely populated area and a flood-prone river. New Mexico-based Merrion had never drilled an unconventional well, and had never drilled any kind of well in Pennsylvania.

Merrion says it has operated hundreds of wells over 60 years and would hire local consultants and contractors that have “a tremendous amount of experience and expertise in drilling unconventional horizontal wells in Southwest Pennsylvania.”

In Braddock and East Pittsburgh, the population is predominantly black, and more than 30% live below the poverty line — more than double the state average.

In November, Reyes and another anti-fracking candidate were elected to the East Pittsburgh Council. When they took office in January, the council voted to revoke Merrion’s permit — issued in December 2017 — declaring it had expired.

Merrion is appealing the decision to the East Pittsburgh zoning board. A hearing is set for March 31.

In an email, Merrion operations manager Ryan Davis said the company is moving forward with its plan to drill.

Davis said drilling near a floodplain “is common and proven to be safe in practice when state regulations have been complied with, and we will be in compliance.”

A spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Protection said Merrion’s permit applications remained under review.

‘I see where you’re coming from’

The fight isn’t over. Lee is facing a primary challenge from a North Braddock councilman who supports the fracking proposal and says he’s running “to support Gov. Tom Wolf’s progressive agenda.”

Last month, the Allegheny County Democratic Party and the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council endorsed the challenger, Chris Roland. Building trades unions have supported pro-fracking candidates, citing construction jobs associated with big projects like a Shell petrochemical plant being built 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

“The fear was... that if that fracking didn’t come, they were proposing to shut down the mills,” Lee said. "I think that’s disingenuous. I don’t think U.S. Steel is going to do that.”

A spokesperson for U.S. Steel said that beyond reaffirming the company’s commitment to the region, it “would not be appropriate for us to respond further to speculation about natural gas exploration plans that have not been approved or finalized.”

Yet there are signs of hope for collaboration. Just the other day, Mayor Jones of Braddock, the one who wrote the poem about the steel mill, met with a steelworker at a taco place on Braddock Avenue. Steelworkers Local 1219, which represents hundreds of workers at the Edgar Thomson mill, is creating an environmental committee and wants to inform the community about what’s going on at the mill, he told her. (The union’s president didn’t return messages seeking comment.)

Jones explained her concerns about fracking to the steelworker. “He was like, ‘Yeah, I see where you’re coming from,’ ” she said. “He was a nice guy.”

“I understand why some of the steelworkers get upset, or get antsy, when people say things like fracking is bad," Jones said. "A lot of the steelworkers have been there so long. ... That is their career. You don’t want anyone to jeopardize your career.”