‘We need to shift focus’: A Pa. program is helping boroughs and towns plan for climate change

The coke plant along the Monongahela River, viewed from Monessen’s downtown.

The coke plant along the Monongahela River, viewed from Monessen’s downtown. (Kara Holsopple/Allegheny Front)

This article originally appeared on StateImpact Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have climate plans to cut carbon emissions and prepare for the impacts of global warming. But what about the smaller cities and towns in-between? A free state program, in its second year, is helping to bridge the gap.

Monessen, a small city of about 7,000 in Westmoreland County, is one of the participants in this year’s cohort. Most of Monessen is on a hill, sloping towards the Monongahela River, but the downtown is flat — a floodplain.

Runoff from the hillside overwhelms storm drains, and if the river rises enough, it backs up into the 120-year-old sewer system. Businesses have been flooded, and Mayor Matt Shorraw says it’s happening more often with the increased precipitation from climate change.

“You have these climate events happening, and we have systems that are built for things that happened 100 years ago, not what’s happening now,” Shorraw said. “We need to shift focus to that.”

This problem is one of the reasons he jumped at the chance to participate in the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Local Climate Action Program or LCAP. This fall, 21 local boroughs and towns took an inventory of their greenhouse gas emissions, in areas like waste disposal, transportation, and industry. In the spring, they’ll create climate action plans.

Many older buildings in Monessen’s downtown business district hint at the city’s more prosperous past, but are now vacant. (Kara Holsopple/Allegheny Front)

“I’m hoping that we could also use the information to show people that we are serious about taking the next steps to create a better community, a healthier community,” Shorraw said. “And in turn, hopefully, attract more people here, and more businesses who appreciate that work.”

Monessen was once a thriving, if dirty, mill town. The steel mill is gone, along with much of the population, but a coke-making facility remains along the river, adjacent to the downtown. It’s on hot idle right now, because of the pandemic, and was recently sold to Ohio-based Cleveland-Cliffs Incorporated. But in 2017, ArcelorMittal, the plant’s former owner, agreed to a $1.8 million dollar settlement over air pollution violations.

Expert help and ‘human capital’

Emissions data from the coke plant in Monessen are something that flagged Caity Miller’s attention. Miller, a senior at Susquehanna University, is interested in atmospheric science, and specifically in carbon emissions. She’s working on Monessen’s plan as her senior research project.

This fall, she and students from other schools working in the program are plugging municipal data into a tool called ClearPath, which converts that information into greenhouse gas emissions or carbon dioxide equivalents. According to the US EPA, in 2018, the coke plant in Monessen recorded nearly one hundred 50-thousand metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions.

“That’s a pretty large chunk of CO2 emissions. I’m interested to see how that stacks up against the rest of the city’s emissions,” Miller said. “I think that can really indicate whether there’s room for reductions here because it can be difficult to mitigate facility emissions like that without actual policy and legislation.”

Heidi Kunka, who oversees the Local Climate Action Program at DEP, said the students matched with LCAP-participating governments are a critical piece of support the program provides.

“If there’s one thing that I’ve experienced with this program is what the local governments need the most besides funding is human capital,” Kunka said. In turn, students receive real-world experience and help in building their resumes.

The Pennsylvania Climate Action Plan calls for a 26 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, and an 80 percent reduction by 2050. It recommends 19 strategies to get there, and LCAP is one of them.

“The impacts of climate change are experienced locally, like flooding and all of these extreme rain events that we’re seeing,” Kunka said. “State government needs to assist in supporting more resilient communities.”

The program, funded by the US Department of Energy, is first come, first serve, and Kunka said they haven’t had trouble filling spots. Of the 20 participants in last year’s cohort, the program’s first, 12 met the goal of creating a draft climate plan.

Early adopter

Bellefonte, in Centre County, officially adopted its climate action plan this September after participating in the first year of LCAP.

The plan includes dozens of staged goals like creating a trolley loop in the downtown to reduce traffic and improve accessibility by 2025, and by 2035, completing half of the new sidewalk projects with permeable materials to soak up stormwater.

“The first ones are more, I think, what you would consider to be low cost. As you get along further, it involves more of the community and more money,” said Joanne Tosti-Vasey, council president of the borough of about 6,200 residents outside of State College.

Tosti-Vasey said Bellefonte’s greenhouse gas inventory revealed that the residential sector was a big part of its emissions pie. One goal is increasing energy efficiency with things like LED lighting.

“Almost half of our community is rental properties,” she said. “They’re inspected once every two years, and if we upgrade the code guidelines, then when [inspectors] go in they can say, ‘Well, here’s an issue that you have with your lights…and in order to meet codes now, you need to do these sorts of things.’”

Tosti-Vasey says, to lead by example, they’ll start with the borough’s buildings. Municipal leaders also want to hear what community members in Bellefonte want out of the plan. Initially, they sent a survey to random residents using utility bills, to gauge interest. Now that the plan is complete, its first directive is to convene an environmental advisory review board. From there, Bellefonte will plan the next steps of enacting the plan, according to Tosti-Vasey, like education programs and possibly grants to assist homeowners.

Engaging all communities

Monessen has a lot in common with Bellefonte and many other LCAP participants. Two-thirds of the census tracts in Monessen include environmental justice areas, defined by DEP as an area where at least 20 percent of residents live in poverty and/or 30 percent are people of color.

DEP provides access to information for these communities so they can participate in the permitting process for facilities, like Monessen’s coke plant, which can disproportionately impact them.

Allison Acevedo, DEP’s director of environmental justice, teaches one of the many webinars for participants in the LCAP. Hers is about how to approach community engagement for their climate plans.

“Many people have been focused on engaging communities from a place where ‘we’re finished with this process and we want your input,’ ” Acevedo said. “So really thinking about how to engage communities in the process and not just the product.”

She says part of the training is also understanding that environmental justice doesn’t just mean clean air and water, but could include things like considering if residents can afford to cool their homes as temperatures rise, or if there are enough street trees to shade neighborhoods.

Te’Querra Turner, who co-owns Nefertiti’s Palace in Monessen, would like to learn more about the town’s climate action plan. (Kara Holsopple/The Allegheny Front)

In Monessen, Te’Querra Turner stands behind the royal purple counter of Nefertiti’s Palace, which specializes in natural Black hair care products. She has lived her whole life in Monessen and co-owns the shop, which just opened this summer on the main street downtown.

Business is slow on this drizzly November day because of the pandemic. Turner says she hasn’t experienced any flooding in the building, but she knows about the sewage problem. “Any time it rains, it comes up, and it smells in here. We’ve got to light incense,” she said.

Turner said she never really thinks about climate change. “I mean, we never really had any disasters, no earthquakes, no tornadoes,” Turner said. But she does recall that when she played basketball at the Salvation Army as a kid, the basement of the building had to be remodeled because of flooding.

Turner said she’d like to learn more about the impacts of climate change, and the climate plan here. “The last thing I need is for us to have a disaster downtown,” Turner said. “You’re going to have to put more money back into your business if something gets destroyed. I wouldn’t want that to happen.”

Monessen Mayor Matt Shorraw is counting on residents seeing the economic benefits of dealing with climate change in this city that depended so heavily on a carbon-polluting industry in the past. He’d like to attract tech businesses to the area and get more people to recycle and think about their waste stream.

“I think there are a lot of people in Monessen that believe in climate change, and that support environmental initiatives, but they either don’t know how to talk about it or they just are afraid to talk about it because of the stigma that’s associated with it,” Shorraw said.

Monessen’s city council, with which he has had a contentious relationship, just approved an environmental advisory board, and Shorraw says he’s eager to move on to the more hands-on work of making the climate plan a reality.

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