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Renaming Erie’s “Summer of Soot and Sewage” to the Summer of Community Climate Solutions

Last week, an article in the Erie Times-News aptly referred to Erie's summer as the “Summer of Soot and Sewage”. 

Citing poor air quality resulting from widespread Canadian wildfires and numerous beach closures linked to elevated E. coli levels, reporter David Bruce described a “double whammy of pollution.” More research is forthcoming to understand the record E. coli-related beach closures because some, uncharacteristically, did not follow periods of intense rainfall. However, research shows us an overarching tie between elevated exposure to E. coli bacteria and increased Canadian wildlife burn acreage to a changing climate.  With Erie being named the 7th fastest-warming city in the US and July 2023 becoming the hottest month on record globally, we can see clearly that Erie is not immune from climate impacts.

We are facing significant environmental challenges, and research shows we need to take action at all levels and across all sectors to prevent the worst harm. At PennFuture, we advocate to those in positions of power for policy change. However,l to succeed in this role, we rely on the efforts and stories of hardworking scientists, government employees, and social justice, environment, and labor activists, among others on the ground. 

Reflecting on Erie’s summer, I want to highlight four community activist-led efforts that provide hope and inspiration about our ability to affect change. Based on the examples set by these community advocates, I propose we rename this recent season to the “Summer of Community Climate Solutions.”


UE Wabtec Strike & the Green Locomotive Project

At the beginning of summer, the University of Massachusetts - Amherst Political Economy and Research Institute released a report concluding that if Wabtec committed to producing 1,000 green locomotives per year at its Lawrence Park plant, up to 5,100 well-paying jobs would be created in Erie County alone. Our partner, ReImagine Appalachia, elevated the report from the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) and their Green Locomotive Project. UE’s Green Locomotive Project aims to create “good union jobs, address climate change, and clean up pollution in the low-income communities and communities of color which bear the brunt of pollution from rail yards.”

The Green Locomotive Project was a focal point of contention between UE and Wabtec during a two-month strike of UE’s 1,400-member workforce. PennFuture stood in solidarity with UE Locals 506 and 618 in Pittsburgh and Erie, speaking in support of the Green Locomotive Project at two Erie rallies. 

I hope the efforts of UE in Erie this summer will be a catalyst for more conversations about Erie’s position in the rapidly expanding green manufacturing sector and a more sustainable local standard for development.



Grow Erie Groundbreaking at Savocchio Opportunity Park

Right around the corner from Wabtec, the persistence of East Erie residents is setting another example for climate action. On June 15th, Grow Erie, an initiative spearheaded by the Minority Community Investment Corporation (MCIC), broke ground at Savocchio Opportunity Park after 20 years of planning and persistence. 

The Grow Erie site, a remediated brownfield, will include a new urban agriculture facility made possible by a public-private partnership of MCIC, the Erie County Redevelopment Authority, and Integrated Agriculture Systems. Planned for the site is a commercial aquaponics facility and a community greenhouse. MCIC leader Gary Horton shared his vision for Grow Erie to “invest in our neighborhoods, provide employment opportunities, and bring locally-grown food to a food desert.”

Lisa Thompson Sayers of the Erie Times-News summarized the potential for Grow Erie to serve as a model by concluding a recent column with, “The nation knows Erie well as a political bellwether. When it comes to resolving some of its most damnable and intractable social, economic and environmental ills, let it be a bellwether of change.”

Fairview, Girard Resident Opposition Leads to Defeat of Proposed Agricultural Conversion for Business Park

Rural Erie County advocates also claimed victory over the status quo this summer. Erie’s history of unencumbered urban sprawl and consequent population decline from its dense community centers bore great economic, social, and economic costs. Habitat loss, increased automobile travel and emissions, and greater inequity between area school districts and communities are just some of the impacts.

While many in Erie understand that reinvestment in Erie County’s community cores will bring greater benefits and return-on-investment, polarized politics can get in the way. 

The West County Citizens Coalition advocacy shows that the situation is more nuanced at the ground level. A dozen Girard and Fairview Township residents rallied the support of over 1,500 people to fight against converting agricultural land to a business park. Their advocacy, citing concerns of insufficient public transparency and resident engagement, increased stormwater runoff, new traffic emissions, and more, led Erie County Council to rescind approval of the necessary property transfer on August 29th. Less than two months after their initial vote, this unanimous decision effectively ended the business park proposal.

I applaud the concerned citizens of Girard and Fairview Townships for standing up against outdated land use decisions.


Hold Erie Coke Accountable Calls for Transparency, Community Working Group

The work of Hold Erie Coke Accountable (HECA), another group of concerned residents, began in 2019 in response to persistent air and wastewater pollution violations by Erie Coke Corporation. Rather than bringing the plant into environmental compliance, as HECA advocated, Erie Coke chose to dodge responsibility and shutter the plant without alerting employees.

HECA’s advocacy continues. HECA became increasingly concerned about the lack of effort by area leaders to ensure opportunities for community engagement regarding the future of the site. As a result, the group sent a letter outlining their concerns to almost 150 Erie regional stakeholders in mid-August. 

One of HECA’s critical calls to action is the formation of a Community Working Group, mirroring the precedent set for Tonawanda Coke in Western NY. HECA continues to meet with stakeholders and leaders to advocate for the Community Working Group.

HECA remains committed to its principles for site reuse aimed at preventing another EPA Title V Air Permit holder from occupying the site. I appreciate HECA serving as a watchdog advocating for a future for the site, informed by the community and without another emission-belching, bad actor moving in.

A more equitable future for Erie that recognizes the importance of balanced economic prosperity and environmental stewardship will require lessons learned from near and far. This summer has shown that the list of local examples is growing rapidly, and we must build support for leaders who can connect the dots. Thank you again to the community advocates named above and others fighting for a better future for the PA Lake Erie Watershed and its residents.


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