Under This Cloud: Life and Death in the Shadow of a Coal-Fired Power Plant

An essay on growing up amid the smokestacks and smog of Pittsburgh, from the Rust Belt Rising Almanac, an anthology published by The Head & The Hand Press.

The Conemaugh Generating Station, a coal-powered plant in Western Pennsylvania operated by GenOn. Credit: Dj245 via Wikimedia Commons

This is your first of three free stories this month. Become a free or sustaining member to read unlimited articles, webinars and ebooks.

Become A Member

The following essay, “Under This Cloud” by Sarah Grey, is included in the Rust Belt Rising Almanac, an anthology published by The Head & The Hand Press. The Almanac can be purchased from the publisher’s website or on Amazon. – Ed.

The birthplace of environmentalist Rachel Carson, her homestead is open to the public… We are proud to call ourselves the town “where green was born.”

- SpringdaleBorough.com

In the end, Rachel Carson remembered only how embarrassed she was by… how dreary and dirty the working-class town became when the West Penn Power Company and Duquesne Light Company squeezed it between their huge power stations at both ends, and how endlessly ugly Springdale was.

- Linda Lear, Rachel Carson

My friends who aren’t from the Rust Belt think it’s weird that I grew up playing in industrial waste, but my friends from home understand.

We grew up in the shadow of the Duquesne Light smokestack, the brown one with red and white stripes. (It’s called GenOn Energy now, a name meant to sound clean — to scrub away the reek of coal ash.) We remember what it was like to be a small child staring up at the darkened sky, terrified, when the power plant “blows its stack” — the earsplitting roar, the black ash cloud that snows onto the modest cars and little hillside houses. We remember sledding down mounds of fly ash.

Some of my friends still live there; more of us joined the “Pittsburgh diaspora” and scattered to bigger cities and faraway states in search of jobs, education, the world. We cheer the Steelers from Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, London, Delhi.

When we come home — for Christmas, for visits, to hug the living or to bury the dead — the Turnpike bends. When we cross the bridge the view opens up. Hills rise on either side of the Allegheny River and two smokestacks loom high between them. When we see them, we know we are home.

There are two now. The second stack was built after I left. Unlike the old stack, it never seems to take a break; the tall column of dark grey smoke billows unceasingly. You can see it from anywhere in the Valley. Should you get lost on the back roads on your way to the new mall, it is there behind the hilly horizon to guide you.

As a child I tried not to look at the smokestack much, though it dominates the landscape. When you live in the shadow of something that huge and that ugly, you have no choice but to ignore it, to focus on the beautiful things, the flowering trees and carefully tended gardens at eye level. The plant has always been something of a blank space in my mental map of the town; it never had anything to do with me.

In the sixth grade I slept over at my friend Marla’s house. She lived directly across the street from the plant in a second-floor apartment that overlooked its grounds. The view from her bedroom window was brightly lit, a confusing vista of chutes and pipes and machinery and coal. I had never seen inside the plant before; I was fascinated. Marla closed the curtain and said, with uncharacteristic vehemence, “I hate that place.”1

There was plenty for children to explore in the footprint of the plant — we particularly liked the abandoned graveyard in an overgrown field just outside its gates, its crumbling tombstones honoring victims of the great Harwick Mine Disaster of 1905. Across the street, shiny black mountains of coal were heaped high. Up the hill in Cheswick, closer to my house, was the Bony Dumps, a vast expanse of slag heaps and fly ash, foothills to the coal mountains half a mile away. We walked our dogs there, poked around with sticks, dug for fossils. Boys darted up and down the little rises on dirt bikes, perforating the edges of the neighboring playground and soccer field with their tire tracks. Today there are condos there, nice ones, with neat green lawns growing on a thin layer of soil that covers the industrial waste. My grandfather used to say that the field was a deep filled-in pit, that if it ever caught fire, it would go on burning for 30 years. I don’t know if that’s true. Solid information is hard to find.2

My first boyfriend, Ethan, lived down near the plant, in the flat part of Cheswick by the river. Duquesne Light built us a park and named it after the pathbreaking biologist Rachel Carson, whose 1964 exposé Silent Spring caused a political firestorm that sparked the modern environmental movement and led to the United States’ ban on the pesticide DDT. She grew up on Marion Avenue near the high school. She died young, of cancer. Ethan and I loved to walk through her park with its trees and gazebos, carefully stepping around the duck shit to stand by the river and hold hands at sunset, gaudy green and yellow bubbles washing up at our feet.

* * *

GenOn’s generosity to Springdale residents and the surrounding community can be seen throughout our small town. GenOn has donated a significant amount of money to Bouquet Park… and also to Springdale’s emergency management services… Additionally, GenOn has built a baseball field, a little league field, and a batting cage for the Springdale community. GenOn continually provides for the annual July 4th Fireman’s Jubilee festivities, administers general upkeep and maintenance to Agan Park, renders charitable donations to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, and makes many other monetary contributions to the welfare of Springdale Borough.

- SpringdaleBorough.com

The Allegheny Valley makes electricity, and we’re proud of it. The school district for many decades shared its mascot, Reddy Kilowatt — you know, the little man made out of lightning bolts — with the electricity industry. (Reddy was retired due to copyright concerns.) Our football team is called the Dynamos.

Power is to us what cars once were to Detroit. Without it, perhaps we too would fade away, dissipating to let the trees grow wild through the rotting roofs of our little company-built brick houses on the hillside. Of course, we make lots of other things, too: Paint, metal products, chemicals. GenOn isn’t even the only power plant in town, but its twin stacks loom large.

Why, you might wonder, do we stay? We were born here, for the most part, though some people move to town for the schools and the low cost of living. (Sooty houses come cheap.) Our parents were born here, too. It was our grandparents and their parents who moved here — mostly as imported labor — from Poland, Slovakia, Italy, Scotland and Russia, traveling on crowded ships to chase the promise of good jobs in the land of plenty (or maybe just to escape starvation). What they found, as James Parton memorably put it, was “hell with the lid taken off.”

(Fair warning: Should you find yourself in conversation with one of my fellow diasporic Pittsburghers, think twice before dredging up that quote.)

Before she died of lung cancer, my grandmother used to tell me about the old Pittsburgh: How women were forever bleaching their curtains, how soot flew so thick in the air in some places that you’d have to turn on your headlights at noon, how two houses at the end of their old street once sank down through the ground into an abandoned mine, all the way to the second-floor windows. Pittsburgh and most of the little valley towns along its rivers aren’t like that anymore. The city itself is being reborn, much of it green and shining, full of good food, innovative art and funky, spacious, reasonably priced houses with stained-glass windows. We now lead the world in organ transplant science and the biotech industry. Most visitors are surprised to find it such a pretty, friendly, and pleasantly funky place.

The towns, though — well, it depends. In the towns where the mills have shut down, the air is crisp and clean. It is only old soot that clings to the aluminum siding of the unsellable houses and the spacious old churches where a few dozen little old ladies still worship. Our town is one of the lucky ones. We still have the power plants, as well as some other heavy industry. Our soot is productive soot, the hard work of our community powering the lights and televisions and iPads of the region, producing 15 percent of the electricity in the Pennsylvania/Maryland/New Jersey region. Our soot is a sign of life.

* * *

Cheswick’s mortality numbers are 87 percent over the national level (167 deaths compared with 89 expected), with the Allegheny River Valley showing high death rates for diseases linked to pollution.

- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A lawsuit filed by two Springdale residents against GenOn Power Midwest alleg[es] that its Cheswick plant is a “nuisance” to property owners…at least 1,500 households near the plant are beset by “fly ash, barium compounds, copper compounds, dioxin and dioxin-like compounds, hydrochloric acid…hydrogen fluoride, lead compounds” and other substances emitted by the plant.

- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 6, 2012

Periodically you may hear derogatory accusations directed towards GenOn. We issue this announcement in hopes to appeal to your better judgment as you weigh these accusations against the benefit of GenOn to the community. Please keep the aforementioned contributions GenOn has made in mind and realize that they bring a significant amount of revenue into this community; the same revenue that goes into the paychecks of many residents and helps to sustain Springdale Borough’s infrastructure.

- SpringdaleBorough.com

My mother’s asthma is getting worse.

It’s fueled by her allergies, which are numerous and severe — like mine. She also suffers from chronic sinus infections. Our grocery stores have all closed down, but the few remaining pharmacies appear to do steady business in inhalers and nasal spray.

Mom’s doctor orders a chest X-ray. “Good,” I tell her; her latest respiratory infection has lasted so long that I’m worried she might have pneumonia.

“It’s not pneumonia,” she replies, “and that’s not what worries me.”

I know what worries her.

In 2009 my grandparents both died of lung cancer. Grammy was diagnosed well before Grandpa; she participated in a pharmaceutical drug study and was one of a lucky few to whom the experimental drug gave a few extra years. My mother moved in with them for the final nightmarish year. Grammy’s always-tiny frame dwindled to 60 pounds as the cancer took over. Her mind left us and went back to the North Carolina farm where she grew up; she was lucid for only a few minutes every day, and when she was lucid she was terrified. Grandpa, too, was declining; when Grammy died that August, he told us he’d be joining her soon. He was gone by October, slipping away while his children raced toward him on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

That’s what my mother fears.

We fear cancer because we can’t trace it. It’s not a simple equation of cause and effect. Cancer can be visited upon our bodies through an accident of genetics, a dangerous exposure to chemicals or radiation, or a slow buildup of environmental toxins — but most of the time, we don’t know and never will. When it strikes us, we are filled with fear, but we are also busy. There are doctor’s appointments to drive to, tests to schedule. There are expensive prescriptions to pay for and health insurance companies to fight with and bosses to mollify. We have to tell our parents, our children, our friends that our lives are, at best, very different now. We are learning new terms: Carcinogenesis. Metastasis. We are forced to live in the here and now; there is little time to ask questions like what did this to me? and why?

Cancer experts, too, have their hands tied to some extent. It’s difficult to study air pollution because there is so much of it; sorting out individual sources and isolating their effects is difficult. Lung cancer patients, in particular, tend to die so quickly that there’s not much time to study them. And there is a great deal more funding available for research into genetic and lifestyle-based potential causes of cancer than environmental ones. That’s why you hear the term “suspected carcinogen” so often — the pool is so vast and the investigation so new. We have many suspects but few convicted killers.

There’s also a dearth of information because of the recent deregulation of Pennsylvania’s electrical industry. Pennsylvania sits on top of the Marcellus Shale, a geological formation that is rich in natural gas. Gas wells clutter the countryside. The state hasn’t seen an energy boom like this since Edwin Drake struck oil in Titusville in 1859. It’s even more common in the remoter parts of the state (the rural region Pittsburghers and Philadelphians deride as “Pennsyltucky”), but it’s everywhere. The city of Pittsburgh had to explicitly ban natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing (the environmentally damaging process colorfully labeled “fracking”) within city limits, but as for our little towns 10 miles away, well — go out to the Pittsburgh Mills Mall just off Route 28, or a mile or so out the back road through Springdale Township. As you make your way to Walmart (now the only surviving store nearby that sells enough staples to make Christmas cookies), take a look at the hillside behind the mall. When the gas wells were first drilled there, you couldn’t miss the flames and roar of burning waste gas from the flare stacks; now the wells are unobtrusive, but you can still spot them easily from the parking lot.

* * *

Making visible the links between cancer and environmental contamination was challenging for [Rachel] Carson…However agonizing their deaths, cancer patients do not collapse around the birdbath…although some cancer-producing substances—called carcinogens—are naturally occurring and have existed since life began, twentieth-century industrial activities have created countless such substances against which we have no naturally occurring means of protection.

- Sandra Steingraber, Living Downstream

The plant’s new scrubber experienced severe corrosion soon after operation began and the scrubber was taken offline. The scrubber is scheduled to be operational by the end of March 2011. GASP [Group Against Smog and Pollution] has been working with GenOn and concerned community members about this issue and the severe noise that some citizens are experiencing. GASP…[asked the] EPA to reject the Title V Operating Permit of this plant until certain problems with the permit are corrected. Problems include the lack of a limit on mercury emissions, and the lack of all monitoring requirements necessary to ensure that the facility’s pollution control devices are functioning effectively.

- gasp-pgh.org

Since the boom began, and particularly since Gov. Tom Corbett took office, Pennsylvania’s state government has bent over backward to welcome energy companies with generous tax incentives and loosened regulations. The Obama administration passed laws in 2012 that set the first-ever emissions limits for coal and oil-fired power plants; however, the new rules do not apply to existing plants. There’s no denying these laws are a victory for the environmental movement, but we are truly starting from scratch, and there is a long path toward making sure that the laws go far enough and that they are actually enforced in every state and on every company.

In the meantime, one of the law’s most glaring omissions in recent decades has been its failure to demand that not only emissions be lowered, but that they be monitored at all. A petition circulated by a group of local residents under the name GASP (Group Against Smog and Pollution) balked at the EPA’s decision to allow the GenOn plant to stay open while repairs were completed on a “scrubber.” The scrubber, a pollution-reduction device that had not been replaced since the stack was built in 1970, would reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, the gas that forms acid rain. Allowing the plant to operate without the scrubber meant potentially large increases in emissions like sulfur dioxide and lead. The permit the EPA issued did not set limits on mercury emissions, even though these are required by Allegheny County law. The EPA reports I found ranked the GenOn plant at number 13 in the country for sulfur dioxide emissions; I wanted to look at the mercury numbers, but the public records end in 2005. For the last eight years the public has had little reliable access to information about the levels of mercury emissions near our homes. Fortunately, the GASP petition succeeded and Reliant Energy, then the owners of the plant, agreed to take steps to reduce particulate emissions during this period. Sulfur dioxide emissions records for this period were not available; in 2011 the GenOn plant was the seventh largest lead emitter in Allegheny County.

I am not a scientist. I have never studied cancer cells or measured particulate air pollution — I majored in philosophy. I read EPA reports and medical papers to try to understand what is happening to my hometown — why everyone I know seems to have asthma if not cancer, why my mother is wheezing — but they’re opaque and full of technical language. Perhaps this is one reason so many of us find ourselves relying on oral histories like my grandfather’s: Accessible, useful information is in short supply.

I know that the plant isn’t the only source of carcinogens around. It’s true that Grandpa died of lung cancer after living his whole life in Springdale. He also worked a variety of industrial jobs and smoked for 50 years. Who’s to say whether it was the cigarettes, the air pollution or a hundred other things? Even if it’s certain that air pollution is to blame — a difficult certainty to come by — how could anyone ever prove where it came from? When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.

All I know is that when we visited this Christmas, I couldn’t escape the dark column of smoke that loomed over my head every moment — and now that I’m back in Philadelphia, I still can’t escape it. Neither can my friends. We speak of it often, in worried discussions about our parents’ health. That your sign of home and life and prosperity is also a sign of death — that the people you love, and indeed you yourself, have always been dependent on an industry that sees the lives of you and everyone who raised you as collateral damage — how can you ever escape that, no matter how far you scatter?

* * *

We allow the chemical death rain to fall as though there were no alternative, whereas in fact there are many, and our ingenuity could soon discover many more if given opportunity. Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though having lost the will or the vision to demand that which is good?

- Rachel Carson

We are on the screened-in back porch, Mom and I, conjuring nostalgia. It’s late summer. My daughter plays as we talk. This was my grandparents’ hangout spot. There’s a glass-topped table out here, Grammy and Grandpa’s padded plastic armchairs, a few other plastic chairs for visitors and lots of convenient spots to set a jelly-jar glass of iced tea. Flowering vines act as a natural curtain on the window that overlooks the backyard, but from the downhill side of the porch you can look out into the valley. We’re high up on the hill; it’s a commanding view. You can see the river winding down toward the Acme dam. You can get just a glimpse of the football field, especially if the lights are on for a Dynamos game, and it’s a great spot for watching the borough’s Fourth of July fireworks. In the fall the foliage on the opposite side of the valley is gorgeous. The eye is drawn, though, to the enormous smokestacks chugging clouds into an otherwise clear summer sky. I love it out here.

Mom and I are snacking on cookies from the Oakmont Bakery.

I bring up a half-remembered incident from kindergarten. There had been some kind of industrial accident while we were at school. They didn’t tell us what, but sirens blared — not the usual foghorns and fire whistles, but alarm sirens.

“I remember our class learned the meaning of the word evacuation that day, while we waited for the school buses to whisk us off to Acme,” I say, referring to the elementary school a mile away, where my mother works. “I remember the kids being scared, but everybody was so sure they had the right explanation for what was happening. A couple kids said it was a toxic cloud. I’m not sure they knew what that meant, but they said it was coming to get us and the buses were trying to outrun it. I was petrified.”

My mother snorts a sardonic laugh that turns into a cough, then catches her breath. “Is that really how you remember it? My god, you kids. Don’t be silly. It was a minor little accident at a plant across the river. That’s all. There was never any toxic cloud.”


I shake my head and grab another thumbprint cookie, and we laugh. My little daughter joins in without understanding, and that sets us off — we laugh so hard tears come to our eyes. Above us the smokestack pumps out dioxin. Hydrochloric acid. Lead. Sulfur dioxide. Mercury.

There was never any toxic cloud.

Like what you’re reading? Get a browser notification whenever we post a new story. You’re signed-up for browser notifications of new stories. No longer want to be notified? Unsubscribe.

Tags: pittsburghpollutionrust belt

Next City App Never Miss A StoryDownload our app ×

You've reached your monthly limit of three free stories.

This is not a paywall. Become a free or sustaining member to continue reading.

  • Read unlimited stories each month
  • Our email newsletter
  • Webinars and ebooks in one click
  • Our Solutions of the Year magazine
  • Support solutions journalism and preserve access to all readers who work to liberate cities

Join 1064 other sustainers such as:

  • Ann at $5/Month
  • Linda at $25/Year
  • Adrian at $18.00/Month

Already a member? Log in here. U.S. donations are tax-deductible minus the value of thank-you gifts. Questions? Learn more about our membership options.

or pay by credit card:

All members are automatically signed-up to our email newsletter. You can unsubscribe with one-click at any time.

  • Donate $20 or $5/Month

    20th Anniversary Solutions of the Year magazine

has donated ! Thank you 🎉