Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock, Pennsylvania was originally built in 1872 by Andrew Carnegie and was called Carnegie, McCandless & Company. This mill quickly became the largest producer of steel in the world . The steel produced at the plant influenced the onset of the industrial revolution . Both the raw and completed materials are transported by rail attached to the 176-acre property.
The mill transformed the 19th-century town from a predominantly agrarian community to one thriving with immigrants - consisting of mostly Northern Europeans, Italians, and African Americans . The workers that were considered unskilled, mostly people of color, lived in an area referred to as “the bottom” in tenement-style housing near the mill, segregated block by block from their whiter, higher up colleagues . These individuals were given jobs that were called “man-killing jobs" in which they were paid a lesser salary and put into poor working conditions that would kill them later on. These conditions often exposed them to carcinogens and other pollutants that caused lung diseases .
Competition rose and Carnegie, McCandless & Company was no longer the largest producer of steel, and in 1901, the company was sold to J.P. Morgan’s United States Steel Corporation. The company town continued to flourish with a population of 18,000 after World War II . Over the next few decades following 1940, 88.2% of residents left to escape the pollution of the mill, leaving the population of Braddock to be less than 2,200 people .
Pennsylvania defines an environmental justice community as “any census tract where 20 percent or more individuals live in poverty, and/or 30 percent or more of the population is minority . Following this definition, Braddock, PA is an environmental justice community with 61 percent Black individuals, and 30.3 percent below the federal poverty line . While the population of Braddock may only be about 2,200 people, more than 21,000 people live within a two-mile radius of the proposed fracking pad in the communities of Braddock, Braddock Hills, Chalfant, Duquesne, East Pittsburgh, Forest Hills, Munhall, North Braddock, North Versailles, Rankin, Turtle Creek, Wilmerding, Whitaker, and West Mifflin .
By the time U.S. Steel proposed the plan to frack (drill for methane gas) on their property, the community trust in the company had already been damaged. When fires burned in 2018 and 2019 at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, it was not until two weeks following them that the community was told that air pollution levels exceeded federal limits . Between 2012 and 2015, Clairton Coke Works had 6,700 air permit violations . Since Braddock is located about 12 miles away from Clairton, the town also felt the effects of air pollution . One resident was upset with U.S. Steel saying “We’ve been dealing with U.S. Steel’s poor environmental record here for 150 years, we have had enough” .
Beginning on December 27, 2017, the first news was released with U.S. Steel’s plan to frack for natural gas on their property . The company decided to sign a lease with Merrion Oil and Gas Corporation, a New-Mexico based company that has drilled more than 400 wells that are mostly in the Rocky Mountains . Merrion has never fracked in Pennsylvania, nor have they ever drilled an unconventional drill, such as the ones being proposed . In 2012, the U.S. Department of the Interior filed a $1.76 million fine against Merrion for “knowing or willing failure to make timely royalty payments” on 18 federal oil and gas leases in Colorado . Despite all of that, Merrion is in charge of the proposed future hydraulic fracking plan, which includes fracking six horizontal wells that would go down 6,700 feet and then extend laterally 10,000 feet into Marcellus Shale . Merrion is moving to permit one well, located at the Edgar Thomson Plant. They are also building a fracking pad that will be approximately three acres, but overall 13 acres will be used by the project for things like equipment staging, water sourcing and storage, road access, and stormwater management features . The fracking pad will be used to drill through other rock formations such as Utica shale . Merrion Oil and Gas Corporation leased the land in July 2017 from U.S. Steel and the Union Railroad Company LLC, who owns the site, to build the fracking pad which will straddle the North Versailles-East Pittsburgh Border, just inside the property line of Edgar Thomson Mill . Should the proposal have gotten all the correct permits, the construction would have begun in 2020, taking about one year of construction, and the wells would produce natural gas for 20-30 years with gas lines going straight into the Edgar Thomson Plant, to run the facility .
On March 27, 2019 approximately 200 residents crowded into the Braddock Volunteer Fire Department #2 Social Hall for about three hours with the Department of Environmental Protection Office of Environmental Justice, Merrion Gas and Oil, and U.S. Steel representatives. Ryan Davis, the operations manager of Merrion for the proposed project, was hoping to give a presentation to inform the residents of the drilling plan. The presentation was followed by questions, with dozens of people waiting in line for the microphone to voice their concerns and questions. They questioned why they should support the proposal, and why would they want it in their neighborhood. The representatives argued that construction would bring business to local hotels and restaurants. They claimed that steel-making is a very energy-intensive process. Since gas lines would be going straight into the mill, they would be using that gas to help manufacture steel, arguing that it would make them more competitive . Residents left still worried about the negative health implications that are related to hydraulically fracked wells .
Data has shown that babies born to mothers who lived within 1 km of a well site, 0.6 miles, are 25% more likely to have low birth weight than if they lived beyond 3 km, about 2 miles. Babies born to mothers who lived further than 3 km experience little to no impact from the well site . With fracking comes a lot of noise pollution, lights, and odors. Research conducted by John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that 23% of their research pool suffered from migraines, 25% experienced severe fatigue, and 24% had current symptoms of chronic rhinosinusitis, defined as three or more months of nasal and sinus symptoms. No single health condition was associated with proximity to an active well, however, those who had two or more of the listed health conditions were approximately twice as likely to live closer to more or large wells. Another study done by Schwartz and colleagues was able to link fracking with an increase in premature births, asthma attacks, and indoor radon concentrations . Considering that 35% of children that live near the mill have asthma, another industrial process linked to increasing asthma attacks could be dangerous to the community .
Municipalities tried to restrict certain zones of East Pittsburgh with certain conditions, including 7 acres of the proposed well construction site. In November 2017 Merrion applied for a conditional use permit to disturb the land and store water on those 7 acres. The following month, East Pittsburgh borough’s five-member council voted on the proposal to drill for natural gas on the Edgar Thomson Mill site, and it passed with only one dissenting vote. Many on the council believed that the borough would gain around $60,000, which could be used to demolish some of their 400 abandoned buildings and build new homes. Ryan Davis stated that municipalities would stand to gain bonuses for signing leases, royalties based on well production, and impact fees determined by a state formula . Back in 2017, Davis said that Merrion would pay $45,000-$50,000 per well in impact fees to the state Public Utility Commission and that East Pittsburgh and North Versailles would split 60% of that fee paid to local municipalities, splitting $27,000-$30,000 per well .
On January 24, 2020, the state Department of Environmental Protection sent Merrion a second letter that its’ Erosion and Sediment Control Permit application was still deficient. The four-page list sent to them stated that they needed to work specifically on its erosion and sedimentation plans, site drawings, geotechnical reports, and hydrology calculations . The permit granted by East Pittsburgh borough expired in January 2020. Merrion sent an appeal to have the permit extended, and on October 22, 2020, the East Borough zoning hearing board denied the appeal to have the permit reinstated with a 3-2 margin. While this was taken as a victory for some residents and environmental groups, the Merrion attorney, Harlan Stone, stated that the company would appeal the decision by the borough in state Common Pleas Court. He stated, “This is not the final word, just one step in what promises to be a very long and drawn-out legal process” .