The Student Activist Fighting Pittsburgh’s Dirty Industry

Anaïs Peterson is busy organizing, educating, and ushering in a new era of environmentalism in the Steel City.
Anaïs Peterson at a protest in Philadelphia, 2017

Dianne Peterson

If the future of environmental activism looks like Anaïs Peterson, we just might be all right. At 21 years old, Peterson has argued at public hearings against fracking and pushed for the University of Pittsburgh, where she’s a student, to divest from fossil fuels. And that’s between classes as she finishes up her junior year majoring in urban studies.

Another big local accomplishment: She organized a climate march through downtown Pittsburgh last July. She got the idea from Zero Hour, the youth-led climate and environmental justice group, when it was spreading the word about an upcoming rally in Washington, D.C., and looking for activists to host sister marches in other cities. “I realized no one was doing anything like that in Pittsburgh,” Peterson says, “so I said, ‘I should get on that.’ ”

With sponsorship from the environmental organizations 350 Pittsburgh and NextGen Pennsylvania, Peterson got to work on a task whose demands, she said, she “grossly underestimated.” Peterson wrote media advisories, secured a lineup of speakers that included other youth climate activists, reviewed their speeches, mapped the protest’s route, and decided on the calls for action.

Peterson at the Stop the Madness March, Pittsburgh, 2017

Mark Dixon/Blue Lens

The effort was worthwhile. On the planned midsummer Saturday, more than 70 people joined Peterson to march along Grant Street in downtown Pittsburgh, where the county and city councils and state senators’ offices are located. The group stopped outside each office to listen to speakers and make specific requests: for Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey to support climate science funding for the EPA, for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto to denounce a new Shell Chemicals plant headed for the region, and for Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to ban additional fracking in his jurisdiction. At the end of the march, Peterson spoke to the crowd herself, uplifted by the enthusiasm for their shared mission.

Despite her successes, Peterson finds she’s often underestimated. “Some of this work is looked down upon as trivial. A lot of it is done over social media, and people write that off so easily,” she says. In particular, she notes that while talking to older, male elected officials, her fluency in describing the impacts of, say, petrochemical production on Pittsburgh’s emissions, is often met with surprise. “People don’t expect me to have all the facts,” she says. “They expect me to make an emotional plea. But I show up and say, ‘Here’s what I know about what’s going on. Here’s what I’ve seen,’ and I try to have discussions.”

The work of groups like Zero Hour and the Sunrise Movement, and the global impact of 16-year-old climate activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg, are helping to shift those perceptions. “Politicians are realizing these are the people who are going to vote. Before, it was too easy to laugh [young] people off, like, ‘Oh, these are the people Snapchatting. We can’t take them seriously.’ But there’s a new sense of urgency.”

Peterson was a freshman in high school when her family moved to O’Hara, a township just northeast of Pittsburgh. The region’s industrial past was palpable: Even as most of the city’s steel plants (and notoriously harmful coke plants, where a type of charcoal is made) have closed their doors, many polluting facilities remain, and the Pittsburgh area still has some of the dirtiest air in the country. “Environmental issues are so much more prominent in these communities,” says Peterson, remembering the first time she testified in front of the Allegheny County Council when she learned its members were going to allow fracking in local parks. It was part of a new wave of dirty industry taking hold in the area. In the past decade, Pennsylvania has seen a boom in hydraulic drilling, which leads to higher levels of air pollution, water contamination, and greenhouse gas emissions that worsen climate change. Though fracking is banned in the city of Pittsburgh itself, it has moved into the surrounding suburbs of Allegheny County.

Zero Hour March, Pittsburgh, 2018

Mark Dixon/Blue Lens

Peterson notes that the industry’s well pads—where fluid is blasted deep underground to crack sedimentary rock and unlock gas and crude oil reserves—are a blight on local communities. In fact, a new one just went up a mile away from the soccer field where her younger brother plays and her dad coaches. “You see them sticking out, especially at night. They’re hugely bright. They smell bad, too. If you walk around near them, a lot of people get headaches. But even if you don’t feel it, you know they’re harming your health.” Allegheny County ranks in the top 2 percent of counties nationwide for cancer risk from air pollution.

In response to the fracking boom, petrochemical plants are following close behind. In particular, a massive, $6 billion ethane cracker plant is being built 30 miles north of Pittsburgh by Shell Chemicals Appalachia. The facility will process natural gas by “cracking” the ethane molecules it contains and turning them into ethylene, a precursor plastic used to make things like plastic bags, packaging, and automotive parts. “All the emissions will completely undo the efforts by Pittsburgh to address climate change and improve pollution,” says Peterson. With the group Free the Planet, she has helped stage multiple public protests against the new cracker plant, including a banner drop off the Smithfield Street Bridge in Pittsburgh last June.

Peterson is also speaking out for change on campus. For years she has been an integral member of Fossil Free Pitt Coalition, a group of about 50 organizations demanding that the University of Pittsburgh divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry. Recently the group celebrated a critical turning point when a whopping 91 percent of the student body voted in support of divestment. Backed by public support, the coalition is now publicly calling on the administration to follow through on the referendum.

Peterson testifying to the Pennsylvania DEP against the Falcon Pipeline, 2018

Mark Dixon/Blue Lens

Peterson takes a broad view of environmentalism. “You can’t be a single-issue person,” she says. “Everything is connected.” She emphasizes the links between environmental issues, racial justice, and gender equity, and as a young woman of color, she has felt personally threatened by the same forces that run roughshod over our environment. She recalls a specific incident during a protest of the Shale Insight conference in Pittsburgh last October, organized by Sarah Martik, a member of the Center for Coalfield Justice, and Peterson’s mother, Dianne. The activists had dressed up as “petro zombies” to dramatize to corporate executives what petrochemicals and extraction were doing to the area. “I had zombie makeup with blood everywhere and a grotesque-looking [fake] wound visible through a tear in my shirt,” she says. It wasn’t long before an older male conference attendee walked past and made a lewd comment. “I was shocked,” she said, “and I think that interaction really highlighted the connections between these movements” for social and environmental justice.

For now, Peterson will keep trying to strike a balance between her studies and her work as an organizer, which, she admits, often feels more important than sitting in class. (She recalls once running late to class because she was testifying at an EPA hearing.) As for what she’ll do after graduation, she’s been considering jumping right into government and running for office. “Going into politics is important, win or lose, to create a movement bigger than one person or one election cycle,” she says.

This movement is for climate justice, she says, but it’s also part of the movement for collective liberation. “I’m trying to save the planet and make it into a better place, rather than just save the planet with its existing systems that got us here, the ones that are oppressing people,” she says. “It’s the right thing to do, and it’s something we’re running out of time to do.”

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