It’s been a good year for playgrounds in Greenfield. The rebuilt playground in The Run is finally open and a playground at Greenfield School is moving forward.
This fall, new playground equipment was finally installed in The Run. The City worked with neighborhood residents—including children—to design the new playground, which features more climbing options than the previous design.
Replacing the playground became a priority after a neighborhood girl was seriously injured due to rusty play equipment. This playground is a favorite among local kids, who like the fact that the parkway bridge shields them during rain, extending playtime.
At Greenfield School, the unsightly paved lot that has doubled as a play yard will become home to the first Community Schoolyard in Pittsburgh. A project of the Trust for Public Land, Community Schoolyards turns neglected public school play spaces in cities across the country into environmentally friendly, green play spaces that also double as outdoor classrooms. TPL worked with the Western PA Conservancy to launch the project at Greenfield School.
The partnership unveiled their design for the new schoolyard in September. It will feature traditional playground equipment along with a track, basketball hoops, new trees, and green spaces. TPL worked directly with students to design the schoolyard, which will be open to the community outside of school hours. Construction is slated to begin in summer 2024.
These new playgrounds have been hard-won, with residents advocating for them persistently over many years. They are a positive example of what’s possible when the City and nonprofit organizations invest in our communities’ future.
At the tail end of rush hour on Aug. 25, more than 60 Greenfield parents and school-age children—some accompanied by family dogs—stood along Greenfield Avenue holding handmade signs that encouraged motorists to drive safely. They were taking part in Slow Down Greenfield, a street action organized by Greenfield resident and mother of three Anna Dekleva.
The Keep Kids Safe with Traffic Calming on Greenfield Ave! petition asks Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) to restore the school safety zone around Greenfield School and Yeshiva School (formerly St. Rosalia’s). It also calls on DOMI to add traffic-calming and pedestrian safety features on Greenfield Avenue at its intersections with Ronald and McCaslin streets, as well as the stretch between Kaercher and Irvine/Saline streets.
Concerns escalated after 12-year-old Cameron Grimes was struck and injured near the McCaslin intersection named in the petition. Children and seniors frequently cross there to access Magee Playground and Magee Rec Center. And residents south of the Kaercher intersection have witnessed numerous wrecks, totaled parked cars, sideswipes, and countless near misses over the years. More than 560 people have signed the petition so far.
We have needed traffic calming and ways for students to safely walk to and from school, and to and from the rec center, for years. Now a child has been hit. What will it take? I recently stood with my child at a STOP SIGN for three cycles before cars actually let us cross Greenfield at McCaslin. Cars never slow down at Greenfield and Kaercher, even though there is a cross walk. Motorists are not safe in this space and we need engineering to make them be safe.
Greenfielders speak out
Catherine Adams, who serves as co-chair of the GCA’s Planning, Transportation, and Development Committee and co-wrote the petition, attended the action and lauded Ms. Dekleva’s quick organizing.
“This type of event is an easy way to build and strengthen the community,” she told us in an Aug. 27 email. She noted that along with driver awareness, “we also need infrastructure that prevents vehicles from traveling at high speeds in areas with a lot of pedestrians, many of them kids. A speed limit sign doesn’t prevent a vehicle from traveling too fast, but infrastructure changes can.”
“A lot of the drivers who passed us slowed down, gave us thumbs up and waved,” observed Daniel Tkacik, who participated with his 18-month-old son Felix and family dog Louie. “Greenfield is a neighborhood full of families with children… We need street design that discourages fast, dangerous driving.”
District 5 Councilperson Barb Warwick commented after attending the action, “I’m really proud of my Greenfield neighbors who came out to advocate for safer streets for our kids. As residents, we need to start prioritizing safety over convenience and traffic flow. Our local communities know the danger zones, so that’s where we should start.”
Traffic safety improvements were a major plank of Councilor Warwick’s successful campaign to replace Corey O’Connor in last year’s special election.
Obvious, long-standing neglect
Over several years, Greenfield residents have lobbied city government for better traffic safety in the neighborhood, but their pleas have been ignored. Since DOMI’s 2017 inception, residents have repeatedly asked when DOMI will meet with them to collaborate on traffic safety measures and when those measures would be implemented. DOMI’s responses have ranged from non-committal to non-existent.
“It’s definitely something that’s on DOMI’s radar for improvements in the future,” he said, “but they are going to be—it’s something that we’ll—it’s in the long-range plan as resources become available.”
Aside from the usual traffic, traffic has tremendously increased due to the Anderson Bridge closing and its plan to not open until 2025, traffic is more congested, drivers more anxious to get home, and increase for drivers to not obey traffic regulations.
The wrecks keep coming
On the afternoon of Aug. 30, as this report was being finalized, another accident occurred on Greenfield Ave. A driver traveling east on the 800 block swerved and hit a legally parked truck, then flipped over. Fortunately, the couple and their young child who were in the car sustained no injuries.
“Action is needed now”
DOMI’s intention to leave Greenfield Avenue as-is until reconstruction of Swinburne Bridge is finished prolongs conditions that put residents of all ages at risk. Cameron Grimes’ injuries have exacerbated Greenfielders’ frustration at DOMI’s neglect of basic safety improvements—especially as they see millions of tax dollars being spent on the very same solutions in more affluent surrounding communities.
“I understand there are needs throughout the entire city,” said Ms. Adams, “but it’s hard to be patient when pedestrians are getting hit by cars in your neighborhood.”
Asked what she would say to Mayor Gainey, Ms. Dekleva responded in an Aug. 27 email, “I would say this is an easy fix request being asked here; get a traffic engineering team activated and install traffic calming measures today, before another person is hit or killed. We don’t need a magic wand or any further extended theoretical deliberation…Action is needed now or more residents will be maimed or die from a problem the city can address today.”
Councilor Warwick told us, “Traffic calming doesn’t have to be complicated, and as a city, we need to be implementing simple, common-sense fixes while we work on larger-scale projects.”
Slow Down Greenfield rides again (soon)
Ms. Dekleva said she valued being part of this action with her neighbors and plans to schedule another one—possibly the weekend after Labor Day.
She told us during an Aug. 21 phone call, “I think that the tremendous history of working-class solidarity is alive and well in Greenfield—something we all love about Greenfield. This is not something people will let go, and we will be heard for sure.”
On Aug. 16, a car struck 12-year-old Cameron Grimes as he and his sister began to cross Greenfield Avenue on their way home from Magee Playground.
Cameron’s mother, Leah Pugh, told us during an Aug. 17 phone call that he has a fractured arm and abrasions all over his body—including damage to his ear that will require surgery. “Other than that, he’s OK,” she said. Witnessing the accident had shaken Cameron’s 11-year-old sister Camella, but she was doing better at the time of our interview.
Greenfield School PTO secretary Marianne Holohan, who helped draft the petition, said an accident like this is exactly what she was afraid of.
The petition specifically names the part of Greenfield Avenue where Cameron was hit, noting that kids and seniors cross at its intersection with McCaslin Street to visit Magee Rec Center. It also points out the stretch between Kaercher and Irvine/Saline streets, where “despite the high number of crashes, nothing has been done.”
When Mayor Ed Gainey held a community meeting in Greenfield on Jan. 14, attendees identified conditions along Greenfield Avenue as their top concern. Mayor Gainey thanked the residents for sharing their needs and encouraged them to “be aggressive” in communicating with his office going forward.
According to DOMI, Greenfield Avenue qualifies for Pittsburgh’s Neighborhood Traffic Calming program. However, it still has not received funding for traffic-calming improvements despite ongoing requests from residents and this year’s formal budget request from the Greenfield Community Association. At a July 2022 meeting about the replacement of Swinburne Bridge, DOMI project manager Zachary Workman told residents that any changes to Greenfield Avenue would have to wait until construction of the new bridge is complete in 2026 or later. “It’s definitely something that’s on DOMI’s radar for improvements in the future but it’s in the long-range plan as resources become available.”
“Outside of projects in affluent East End neighborhoods, DOMI only seems to install traffic calming after someone has been hurt or killed,” Ms. Holohan commented in an Aug. 17 text. “We should not have to sacrifice our children for basic public safety.”
“That could be any kid”
Ms. Pugh stressed the importance of better traffic control on Greenfield Avenue, saying that what happened to her son isn’t unique. She works in Hazelwood and knew Jamel Austin, the Glen Hazel 6-year-old who was killed on Johnston Avenue last year after being hit by a car.
She was aware of Glen Hazel’s successful efforts to get traffic-calming measures on Johnston Avenue and around the neighborhood schools after Jamel’s tragic death. But she said that before Cameron’s accident she was not aware that Greenfield residents were also lobbying for traffic calming. Now, she said, she wants to bring as much attention to the problem as possible.
We asked Ms. Pugh what she would say if she could speak directly to Mayor Gainey and the public about Cameron’s accident. She responded, “[Magee Playground] belongs to every child. So in a sense, my son is everyone’s son. Many have and will cross this same street that cars will continue to speed through. Clearly, that is [the] root and reason for the petitions and pleas to the mayor and so forth. How much more effort is needed for basic residential safety?”
Speeding cars, blind turns, complex intersections and a lack of safety infrastructure have created a hazardous environment for pedestrians on Greenfield Avenue. To amplify residents’ calls for change, the Greenfield School Parent-Teacher Organization and the Greenfield Community Association have co-sponsored a petition asking the city for traffic calming on Greenfield Avenue.
The petition calls on the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, known as DOMI, to restore the school safety zone on Greenfield Avenue that was removed when St. Rosalia’s school closed, despite the presence of Greenfield School next door.
The petition requests traffic calming and pedestrian safety measures on Greenfield Avenue at the intersections with Ronald and McCaslin streets, where kids and seniors cross to visit the Magee Rec Center, as well as the stretch between Kaercher and Irvine/Saline streets, the site of numerous wrecks in recent years.
While the petition focuses on asking for, not prescribing, solutions, potential interventions could include better crosswalk signage, a second crossing guard at Ronald Street, flashing speed awareness signs, rumble strips and a defined shoulder line.
Neighbors Share Harrowing Stories
The petition’s optional comment section is full of firsthand accounts from respondents who live on or near Greenfield Avenue, like witnessing a car crash that ripped the tire off of a parked car in front of Magee Rec Center.
One pedestrian called the Ronald Street intersection terrifying. A resident who has been asking the city for safety measures since the Murphy administration invited DOMI officials to sit on her porch and observe the traffic hazards she sees every day.
Many respondents begged DOMI to be proactive, with one recalling the tragic death of 6-year-old Jamel Austin on Johnston Avenue in Glen Hazel in July of 2022.
Another wrote that dangerous pedestrian conditions are bad for business. “It is extremely difficult to cross the Greenfield and Ronald intersection with my kids, which discourages us from walking to the businesses along Greenfield Avenue.”
Other respondents expressed disappointment and anger with the city’s inaction.
“It’s embarrassing we have to ‘petition’ to keep our kids safe,” one wrote. Another stated, “I am tired of living in a city where cars are a priority—even over the safety, health, and well-being of our children, residents and neighbors. Please do something.”
On June 21, Pittsburgh City Council passed Resolution 1619-2023, which formally recognizes 28 acres between Panther Hollow and The Run—known as Junction Hollow—as part of Schenley Park. The same day, they passed an ordinance (1620-2023) that got less attention at the time but could help any Pittsburgh resident who wants to have their say in the future of a city park.
District 5 councilor Barb Warwick introduced both pieces of legislation, stressing the importance of parks. In her resolution, she wrote that Junction Hollow provides recreational space and is vital for green stormwater management. She told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on June 7 that Junction Hollow “has been part of the park in layman’s terms for a long time, but it’s not officially designated as a park.”
Now, it enjoys the same protections as the rest of Schenley Park.
Councilor Warwick said during a July 7 phone call that her office is working to introduce related measures over the next few months. Their common goal is to prevent development-oriented projects like the now-defunct Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) from being forced on communities that do not want them.
Lessons Learned from the Battle of Four Mile Run
“Throughout the MOC fight, the city was trying to turn a park into a shuttle road,” Councilor Warwick said. “The city’s argument was that it used to be a road; it didn’t matter that it’s a park now. [The resolution that passed] is just to make it clear that this is a park now.”
Residents in MOC-affected communities didn’t know that Pittsburgh’s Home Rule charter gives them the right to petition the city for a public hearing on what Ordinance 1620-2023 calls “the change of use of a City Park or Greenway.” And they could have bolstered their case against allowing the MOC in Schenley Park by citing a state law called the Donated or Dedicated Property Act. It says land donated or dedicated as a park cannot be taken out of the public trust to serve other purposes. The ordinance requires the city to tell petitioners that the Donated or Dedicated Property Act exists, and that they have a right to use it to defend public land.
Councilor Warwick said her office is working on legislation to introduce in the fall setting rules for development in city parks. Without changing zoning laws, she wants to focus development only on the public’s enjoyment of the parks. For example, the MOC was a roadway or thoroughfare intended to connect two neighborhoods, not promote use of the park itself.
At the time of our interview, Councilor Warwick was planning to introduce legislation on July 18 that would change the city’s process of applying for certain grants. When a city department decides to apply for a grant worth more than $250,000 or to fund a project that is not already in the capital budget, they would have to notify City Council before applying.
“It doesn’t give us a vote, but earlier on in the process, we have an opportunity to ask questions,” Councilor Warwick explained. “If we don’t support the project and they apply for the grant anyway, when the grant does come to a vote at the end there is a record of these issues.”
The point of involving City Council earlier, she said, is “ensuring that when the city is pursuing a grant for a project, it is one the community wants or has identified as a need. That’s all we should ever be doing, but the reality is it hasn’t been. Big, visionary things are fine, but we need to be focusing on the communities’ day-to-day needs.”
Shaping the Future of Sylvan Avenue Trail
Councilor Warwick saw firsthand how communities can be left out of deciding which projects to fund with grants. During a series of public meetings about the MOC in 2018-2019, the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, known as DOMI, applied for a grant to build the Sylvan Avenue trail (part of the MOC route) without informing the public. After receiving the grant, they pushed the project through by raising the specter of leaving money on the proverbial table.
“If they were doing this now and notified me, I would have asked, ‘Why are we applying for this grant when there are so many other things that need to be done for Hazelwood?’” Councilor Warwick said.
But since the trail project is moving forward, she added that she intends to make the best of it. “We’re trying to put money toward creating a plan for the Sylvan Avenue trail instead of it just being a DOMI bike trail. We want to include a plan for the larger space because it is now a park.”
The trail is part of the Hazelwood Greenway, which was designated a city park in December 2021. That means it has the same current and future protections as Schenley Park.
“It’s going to take years, but whatever the design is for that trail, I want it to include what that park could look like 5 to 10 years from now with investment,” Councilor Warwick said. “It’s for the community, not just commuters passing through.”
On June 11, residents of Panther Hollow, Four Mile Run, and Hazelwood gathered with supporters in Panther Hollow to celebrate the demise of the Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) shuttle road and uplift a new vision of community-centered development in its place.
They marched in a New Orleans-style brass band “funeral” parade along Junction Hollow Trail in Schenley Park, a popular car-free route for cyclists and part of the route the MOC would have taken between Oakland university campuses and the Hazelwood Green development site. The MOC would have permanently degraded the park and commandeered already-limited public spaces in Panther Hollow and The Run. And many Hazelwood residents questioned proponents’ claims that the road was designed to improve their mobility.
But in the face of a campaign to paint concerned community members as anti-progress, simply saying no to the MOC wasn’t enough. Residents and community organizations from all MOC-affected neighborhoods—including Oakland and Squirrel Hill—met several times in 2019 to draft an alternative plan that would improve mobility in their neighborhoods and cost less than the projected $25 million Pittsburgh planned for the MOC. Pittsburghers for Public Transit helped coordinate meetings and organize the plan. Improvements were broken into three categories: pedestrian, transit, and trail/bike.
The Our Money, Our Solutions, or OMOS, plan was the result. The needs it identified were compelling enough that several of them have been addressed since the plan was launched as a petition to City Council.
The Irvine Street and Second Avenue sidewalk audit and replacement with ADA-compliant width and curb cuts from Greenfield Avenue through the Hazelwood business district
Weekend service on the 93 (a minimum frequency of once every 40 minutes is still in process)
Street resurfacing and traffic calming around Burgwin Rec Center and Burgwin Field
Under discussion/in progress
Extend the 75 bus line across the Hot Metal Bridge into Hazelwood
Calm traffic on Hazelwood Avenue
Create and maintain the Sylvan Avenue corridor as a vehicle-free route for pedestrians and cyclists, managed with an emphasis on forest habitat restoration
ADA-compliant sidewalks and street lights on Desdemona Avenue and Imogene Road (Councilor Barb Warwick said she is trying to get this into the budget)
Traffic signal priority for buses on Hot Metal and Birmingham bridges
Reconstructing the nexus of Saline-Irvine-Second-Greenfield streets, i.e., rethinking the current plan with more direct community input so that improvement does not ease Hazelwood Green traffic at the expense of residents in directly affected areas, particularly The Run
That is a pretty good scorecard for a plan that has never been formally recognized by the city!
Address widespread traffic safety concerns. These include traffic calming on lower Greenfield Avenue; lighting on Irvine Street; school zone infrastructure around Burgwin Rec Center, Burgwin Field and Propel Hazelwood; building an ADA-compliant sidewalk along Boundary Street in Panther Hollow; and dedicated pedestrian crossing times and signals in the Hazelwood business district.
Improve public transit connections, which are still lacking throughout the area. OMOS asks for electric buses on the 75 bus line and clean bus stops with benches and shelters.
Increase connections for cyclists and pedestrians. Keeping Junction Hollow Trail free of motor vehicles, making it safe for year-round commuting, and extending bike lanes from the trail into Panther Hollow all accomplish this goal without displacing residents or disrupting Schenley Park. OMOS also calls for creating a connection between Junction Hollow Trail and the rest of the park under or over the railroad tracks to Panther Hollow Lake. Similarly, a more modest investment to connect the Duck Hollow Trail over the train tracks to Hazelwood could extend the trail network to Squirrel Hill, Frick Park, and points east. Improving the connection between Hazelwood Green and the Eliza Furnace Trail would make the bike commute between Hazelwood and Downtown much safer and allow bus riders safer access to more routes on both sides of Second Avenue.
Let’s get to work—with each other and our local representatives—on meeting the rest of these needs. Especially now that the MOC is officially “dead!”
Our communities said no to the Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) and won the Battle of Four Mile Run! Let’s celebrate by burying the MOC and uplifting a new vision of community-centered process in its place—one that empowers Pittsburghers over products and corporate profits.
Emily Bourne, a press officer in Mayor Gainey’s office, wrote in an April 13 email, “Charles Anderson design is tentatively set to finish in Fall 2023 with construction anticipated to begin in Spring 2024. Ideally the bridge would reopen to traffic by late 2025.”
Residents of The Run who live around nearby Swinburne Bridge, also scheduled for replacement, have questions about what the new plan means for them. Until the city closed Anderson Bridge, Swinburne Bridge had been on track to be replaced first. The Run was threatened with erasure by the Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) shuttle road, which Mayor Gainey halted in February 2022. The planned MOC route included a rebuilt Swinburne Bridge with a dedicated shuttle lane.
As the Swinburne Bridge project moves forward without the MOC, Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) has continued its odious track record of prioritizing high-powered profiteers above communities. But the Anderson Bridge closure gives DOMI an opportunity to change course. They should reset the Swinburne Bridge project to include public decision-making—even if that means a short delay.
By contrast, DOMI ignored repeated requests for DOMI’s presentation on plans for Swinburne Bridge until about four hours before the first of only two public meetings on the project. Then project manager Zachary Workman posted a statement denying the requests. DOMI’s community outreach consisted of a letter sent to a few residents who live near the bridge, which they received 10 days before the original meeting date.
At the July 2022 meeting, representatives from DOMI, PennDOT, and private construction firm Alfred Benesch & Company all acknowledged that work on Swinburne Bridge will profoundly affect The Run. A significant portion of the neighborhood—and the only street providing vehicular access to it—lies directly beneath the bridge.
DOMI painted a rosy picture of plans to minimize disruptions to the community, but avoided promising that residents would not have their homes taken through eminent domain. They also avoided any commitment to calm dangerous traffic along Greenfield Avenue.
DOMI ruled out even adding a traffic signal at the intersection of Swinburne Bridge and Greenfield Avenue until after construction on Swinburne Bridge wraps up in 2026 (at the earliest). Residents have been advocating traffic-calming measures along the nearby 300 block of Greenfield Avenue for more than eight years. They face speeding traffic every time they walk between their houses and cars. Several accidents, including some that totaled parked vehicles, occurred there in 2022 alone.
Moving traffic without mowing down residents
Affected residents, commuters, and DOMI all agree that closing Anderson and Swinburne bridges at the same time would cause far-reaching traffic nightmares.
According to Ms. Bourne, “Based on the traffic observed with Charles Anderson being closed, it is apparent that construction cannot begin on the Swinburne replacement project until Charles Anderson has reopened to traffic.”
While Anderson Bridge remains closed, the posted detour includes Greenfield Avenue.
Bumper-to-bumper traffic now provides a brief respite from leadfooted drivers during rush hour, but the rest of the time, they continue to speed.
Whose needs is DOMI serving?
There is no getting around the fact of competing priorities for Greenfield and Hazelwood. Residents need safer streets, while investors in the Hazelwood Green development have long desired a “permanent, rapid link” that moves traffic as quickly as possible between their site and Oakland university campuses. This explains DOMI’s continued prioritizing of MOC-related projects above community needs even after the MOC’s demise.
Taxpayer-funded institutions should be working against such an extreme power imbalance instead of deepening it. We are calling for DOMI to:
Prioritize the physical safety of existing residents by adopting the Our Money, Our Solutions plan. Residents from MOC-affected neighborhoods created the plan in 2019 to point out infrastructure improvements Pittsburgh should be funding instead of the MOC. Several items in the plan have since been addressed—but not traffic calming on Greenfield Avenue.
Reboot the Swinburne Bridge Project, starting with additional public meetings. The next public meeting is not scheduled to be held until the “final design” phase of the project. Plans established before the first meeting call for a rushed, cookie-cutter design that skipped public input. With work on Anderson Bridge expected to last at least through 2025, there is plenty of time to reassess this approach—and no excuse not to.
Continuing fallout from a February 3 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, of a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying toxic chemicals is drawing concern from nearby communities and beyond. On March 7, Mayor Ed Gainey issued a joint statement with five other western Pennsylvania mayors that emphasized continued monitoring of the situation “for any potential short-term or long-term impacts we may see in order to do all we can to protect our air and water for our residents and the region’s wildlife.”
Trying to reassure constituents in a “potential blast zone”
The mayors’ statement also pledged to work with Pittsburgh City Council to “gain a clear picture of the state of rail infrastructure so we can safeguard our communities and hold the railroad companies accountable for any repairs that may need to be made.”
City Council released its own statement on March 7, noting that “as many as 176,000 Pittsburghers live within the potential blast zone of a similar derailment.” They called for stricter regulation of rail carriers and harsher penalties for safety violations.
The council also expressed support for new federal legislation that tightens the rules around trains carrying hazardous materials and expands the “high-hazard flammable” category.
The U.S. Senate’s Railway Safety Act of 2023, introduced on March 1, includes provisions that seem aimed at reversing a trend toward poor working conditions at rail companies. For instance, it would set minimum time requirements for rail car or locomotive inspections.
These reforms push back against an industry laser-focused on speed. Over the past decade, rail companies slashed 30% of their workforce, including safety inspectors, while running longer and heavier trains.
The high price of efficiency
Matt Weaver, a union member and Ohio legislative director of Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, said in a February interview on the Working People podcast, “It goes back to precision scheduled railroading —the business model of the railroad industry for doing more with less.”
Mr. Weaver said his friends who inspect cars have told him standards changed “from two guys inspecting a car and having four or five minutes to do so; now it’s down to one guy pushing for…less than 90 seconds, as little as a minute.”
In addition, rail companies have opposed updating trains’ braking systems to electronic controlled pneumatic brakes (ECB). While most trains have air braking systems that stop individual cars, ECB systems use electronic signals to stop the entire train.
ECB brakes slow and stop trains up to 70% faster, but in 2018 the rail industry lobbied to repeal a Department of Transportation train safety rule requiring ECB installation on trains carrying flammable and hazardous materials.
After the East Palestine derailment, residents near the Pennsylvania border were evacuated while Norfolk Southern executed a “controlled burn” of hazardous chemicals from some of the derailed cars on February 6.
The resulting black cloud towered hundreds of feet into the air; passengers on a commercial flight spotted it. Within 48 hours, the evacuation order was lifted and Ohio governor Mike DeWine announced, “Air quality samples in the area of the wreckage and in nearby residential neighborhoods have consistently showed readings at points below safety screening levels for contaminants of concern.” But some East Palestine residents who returned home began to report symptoms like sore throats, burning eyes, nausea, and rashes. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources said the chemical spill had killed about 3,500 fish in nearby streams.
This same rail line travels through The Run and a tunnel on Neville Street in Oakland, which runs directly beneath one of the densest neighborhoods in the city. A 2015 report from PennEnvironment lists the 15213 Oakland ZIP code among its “top 25 PA zip codes with the largest populations living in the possible evacuation zone.”
In early 2016, a train carrying oil products decoupled along these tracks just before entering the tunnel. Observers recorded several cars marked with hazard placards identifying flammable cargo. Fortunately, the coupling broke as the train headed uphill and the disconnected cars’ brakes worked properly. Had the brakes failed, this portion of the train could have rolled backward and derailed at the first turn in Junction Hollow. A similar decoupling in 2013 caused an explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec that killed 47 people and destroyed the town.
Train derailments are not inevitable
Derailments are more common than people might think, although they rarely involve fatalities. The Department of Transportation has recorded more than 12,400 train derailments over the past decade; of these accidents, around 6,600 tank cars were carrying hazardous materials and 348 cars released their contents, according to the Associated Press.
But as PennEnvironment’s report points out, “[T]rains carrying hazardous materials like crude oil often travel through highly populated cities, counties and neighborhoods—as well as near major drinking water sources.”
The combination of eroded safety regulations and close proximity is a recipe for a disaster like the one in East Palestine.
At a February 23 news conference, National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy called the derailment “100% preventable” and said, “We call things accidents—there are no accidents. Every single event we investigate is preventable.”
Q&A with Annie Quinn, director of the Mon Water Project
Water issues can mean flooded streets, backed-up sewers, and even landslides. A new organization based in Greenfield has the mission of helping people with all of those. Junction Coalition spoke with Annie Quinn, director of the Mon Water Project (MWP) about water issues in The Run and Hazelwood. Ms. Quinn’s answers have been edited for length and clarity.
JC:Why did you decide to start the Mon Water Project? AQ: I had been working for four years in watershed science. As I was attending meetings [about the Four Mile Run stormwater project] and hearing PWSA explaining the project to residents, I felt a responsibility. I wanted to help move the conversation forward. The Mon Water Project is an opportunity to serve the community in a way that helps us all with problems around water—and in Pittsburgh, we have a lot of those.
What is watershed science? The concept of water management within a watershed—how does water move within a system? It’s an area of study that may have been called “freshwater biology” before.
How can the MWP help Hazelwood? The [water/sewer] lines in Hazelwood are as old as the neighborhood. Hazelwood has been a neighborhood of disinvestment resulting from systemic racism, and the result of the “squeaky wheel” system: More privileged residents in other neighborhoods would call and have their pipes replaced over the years.
I want the MWP to raise voices in Hazelwood, find out about their water issues, and get resources for them. We may not know all the water issues Hazelwood residents face. I see the MWP as a chance to unite us and get good solutions for us all.
What have you done in Hazelwood so far? Nonprofits often come into a neighborhood thinking they will be the solution to problems. I want to join existing organizations and become the neighborhood’s “Department of Water.” I’ve joined the [Hazelwood Initiative’s] environmental committee. As time goes on, I’m hoping to meet with PWSA and Grounded Strategies and build upon their relationships with residents. I’m also hoping to meet people at events and educational programs. And I would love to get out in the river on a boat so residents can see the outfall into the river. There are a lot of pathways for me to partner with everyone, and I’m looking forward to meeting residents of all the neighborhoods and working with them.
Could water issues affect the planned Sylvan Avenue Trail? The city is going to have to be careful designing any trail through that area. The number-one issue in trail development is erosion and water damage. There are six streams that are ephemeral—which means they may not be there every day or even every season, but they are a systemic source of water. Any design will have to keep in mind that if not careful about width, ponding, and providing underground transport for water, the trail could become unusable. A pipe could direct water to flow down a steep cliff—and that could eliminate roots on the hillside and contribute to landslides. So for any design, you’d have to know how water works under and around the trail—and where is it safe for the water to go?
What have you learned so far about water issues in The Run? When PWSA said they’re going back to the drawing board [with the stormwater project], they’re going way back… [PWSA has] a stormwater strategic plan—this is new. Before, they were doing stormwater projects more piecemeal and operating with a different metric… [In the new plan], out of all the watersheds in Pittsburgh, Four Mile Run is ranked 5 out of 19. So the good news is that PWSA plans to keep us in the top five for the city. The bad news is that this pushes the timeline [for fixing flooding in The Run]. It’s possible that Four Mile Run is looking at a delay in the promises PWSA made. The process is looking like several layers of plans, then another design and then a project—which can be very frustrating because the solutions are far in the future. We’ll have to figure out together what we do next.
How do you describe PWSA’s Four Mile Run watershed plan? I don’t know, and I don’t think the PWSA knows either. That is the problem, and an opportunity for us to push back and get answers on that. It’s important that our next big conversation with PWSA should be answering questions like, how much additional flow will the project capture? What level of storm is that? Have you evaluated what level of service has allowed this type of flooding in the past? What level of service does this project get up to? There is an opportunity through modeling to predict how the system acts before, during, and after the project. At the MWP, we can analyze data. As a nonprofit, we can use PWSA data and study it from different angles to get some good answers and partner with PWSA to get grants. I’m thinking about how we can take our advocacy to the next level.
How does removal of the work in Junction Hollow affect flood control? The green infrastructure that was proposed in the park…was designed with underdrains so some water goes to groundwater, but a lot is stored and released slowly. [PWSA] said at the [latest] meeting that the new direction [removing the green infrastructure piece] was managing the same amount of water. Slow release would allow them to account for that—the size of the pipes is accounting for holding water back and releasing it slowly… How can we do more storage and slow releasing above ground? How can we avoid feeding a stream into a pipe? The original plan still included water going back into a pipe.
How can the MWP help increase the plan’s effectiveness? The MWP can be more nimble, flexible, and fluid—like water!— in that we are not a government agency with bureaucracy, with politics. We are a grassroots community organization that can apply for grants the city can’t apply for. Nonprofits often can handle problems quicker, or at least bring a distinct perspective. A unified voice for people throughout the watershed. We’re allowed to dream big and do big, innovative projects.
How can people get involved? I am a fiscally sponsored nonprofit of another nonprofit—New Sun Rising. My first job is to get a list of leaders to help decide where the MWP goes next. If you are interested, you don’t have to be a professional—just someone in the community who wants to be actively engaged in a leadership role.
Another way to get involved is to sign up for the newsletter to stay up to date as we grow. Right now, that looks quiet. I want to meet the people who are already here.
About the image: This map shows six springs and ponding along the portion of Sylvan Avenue closed by the city due to landslides. Sylvan Avenue was part of the now-canceled Mon-Oakland Connector shuttle road route between Oakland universities and the Hazelwood Green development. A bike and pedestrian trail has been proposed along the same route. Courtesy of the Mon Water Project