A Fight for Clean Air

Long Time Members of Pittsburgh’s Anti-Air Pollution Group Won’t Quit

By Megan Bixler

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was one of the most industrious, steel-producing cities of its kind. It also became one of the most polluted. Civilians eventually found themselves struggling to participate in their everyday lives, simply because of soiled air quality that made it difficult to breathe.

That was when the Group Against Smog and Pollution stepped in. GASP was founded in 1969 by a small group of young individuals who saw the threatening conditions of the highly-polluted Pittsburgh, and wanted to make a change.  

Photo Courtesy of the Library of University of Pittsburgh.
600 Liberty Avenue in the 1940-50.

Photo Courtesy of Google Maps.
600 Liberty Avenue in 2000.

Current Executive Director of GASP, Rachel Filippini, discussing the organization’s history said, “It is important to know that there was no EPA or Clean Air Act in 1969,” she states, “GASP started because people were concerned about air quality and how it was affecting their health.”

One of those people was Mike Dawida, who joined GASP in 1969 shortly after it was founded. “It was about young people wanting to change the world- we went to public meetings and addressed our concerns about air quality surrounding the city,” recalls the long-time member.

For Dawida, it was obvious to see that Pittsburgh was one of the most polluted cities on this Earth.

As a young college student attending the University of Pittsburgh, he lived with the dirty skies every day, and noticed people struggling to breathe or even simply walk the streets.

“You can’t comprehend this if you see Pittsburgh now,” he notes, “but the entire areas surrounding downtown were steel mills.”

“We took (smoke) readings at night, because that was when the most damage was done- when there was less enforcement and you couldn’t see the pollutants.”

In fact, the skies were so polluted, that on bad days, it was difficult to distinguish day from night.

From there, Dawida and his colleagues took to GASP to show the evidence they discovered to the public.

Dawida found it difficult to pressure the public for several reasons.

Most of the jobs in the city at the time were in the steel mills or related industries, including most of his family. The fight for cleaner air made it seem to these dedicated workers as though they were trying cost jobs.

Dawida, along with many others, did not want to cause unemployment, but rather enforce the requirements on these plants that were violating pollution rules.

Photo Courtesy of ExplorePAHistory.
Smokestacks from a factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, emit black smoke into the atmosphere in the 1890s.

Almost thirty years later GASP was still fighting to regulate the amount of pollution caused from these plants.

In 1998, Kate St. John, another long-time member, joined GASP. St. John recalls smelling a foul, rotten-egg smell almost daily.  

At the time, GASP sensed victory for the air when one of the oldest coke plants in the region was closed down for failing to meet federal clean air standards.  Shortly after the closing, St. John remembered the former mayor calling for a new coke plant. This plant was set to produce even more coke than its predecessor. St. John decided “Enough was enough!”

She, along with other GASP members alerted the public and held a meeting involving everyone-from those who proposed the new the plant to those who were against it. During this fight, St. John educated herself further on air quality, pollution, the coke plants, and smoke reading.

Simultaneously, the newly-proposed plant was looking for tax credits from three places- the state, the county, and the schools. GASP quickly help a meeting with the school board members-after discovering the plant had received the first two credits.

“We had a vote, and the school voted against it…by one vote” St. John recalled. “We won. I was astonished!”  In 1999, the plant finally gave up on rebuilding in Pittsburgh, but unfortunately moved its plan to Ohio, where in fact, pollution still makes it way to Pittsburgh, Western Pennsylvania and surrounding areas.

Photo Courtesy of the Library at the University of Pittsburgh.
A man works on sandblasting a building in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Despite all of those successes over the years, the fight for a cleaner environment is only just beginning.

“While it is very beautiful here in Pittsburgh, now, the issue of pollution is more needed now than ever; GASP is more needed than ever,” Dawida stresses.

“Those of us who are still concerned, need to redouble our efforts.”

Dawida is now retired from his position with GASP, but still helps in any way he can. A former state senator, state representative, and county commissioner, he is now the executive director of a newfound group called Scenic Pittsburgh, where they work to maintain and preserve the beauty of nature in the city.

St. John, still an active board member, notes “becoming active in the fight against the coke plants changed my life. I became an environmental advocate.” As she continues with the board, her goal is to keep enforcing the public to be aware of suspicious activity in local plants and hopes to receive new volunteers in the future, and continue spreading GASP’s word to Pittsburgh and beyond.


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