Message from the Director/Producer of Inversion:
Pittsburgh is a wonderful place to live and I love it here. The people are kind and generous, the food scene is great and getting better, and there are a million things to do around town. Oh, and the air here is much cleaner than it used to be. At least that’s what most people say around town. But is it clean enough?
As Pittsburgh shifts its age-old reputation from an old dirty steel down to a modern center of cultural and technological renaissance, its progress is slowed by a legacy of old polluting industries in a region prone to weather inversions–all of which keep the Pittsburgh region near the top of the list of American cities struggling with air quality. Indeed, the American Lung Association’s 2017 State of the Air report re-affirmed this reputation, as noted by Don Hopey in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“The report ranked the region the eighth worst of more than 200 metropolitan areas in the nation for long-term (annual) soot pollution; the 14th worst for short-term or daily soot pollution, and the 29th worst for ozone, the main precursor for unhealthy smog.” Excerpted from an article by Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (link)
I moved to Pittsburgh in 2006 from California, and I didn’t think much of the air quality for the first few years. I heard it was bad, but I also heard that it was better than it used to be, and that most of the worst pollution happened in other parts of town. I’d occasionally smell something funny, but always figured it was just a local phenomenon, like somebody was re-paving a driveway I couldn’t see, or a dirty old truck had passed by. Eventually, however, I noticed that the smell was not just an issue on my block, but pervaded a good portion of the city. It didn’t happen every day, but often enough that it troubled me–particularly on days when I wanted to go jogging outside. I began to look into it more closely and found piles of resources on the topic. The Breathe Project website was particularly helpful, hosting articles, presentations, and statistics that caused me to grow more concerned, and more intrigued. I started to test out my own air quality using low-cost monitors (first through the ROCIS program, then on my own with Awair devices and most recently PurpleAir and Airviz monitors), and after a few years of immersion in the space, I decided I needed to document all that I had found and open the conversation up to a wider audience.
And so, in early 2016 I decided to begin work on a documentary film tentatively entitled, “Inversion: The Unfinished Business of Pittsburgh’s Air.” The film will be examining multiple “inversions” as they relate to air quality: 1. weather inversions affect the ability of pollution to disperse, particularly in the Pittsburgh region, 2. there is an inversion underway in the power relationship between citizens and governments/corporations with the incoming wave of low-cost citizen science sensors and devices, and 3. there is an inversion underway in the nature of business as polluting industries using fossil fuel combustion shift to battery powered cars and trucks, often powered by clean renewable energy. I plan to weave these threads through a story focused on the massively destructive fire at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works on December 24, 2018. The destruction from the fire ultimately forced U.S. Steel to shut off vital emissions control machinery, exposing nearby communities to emissions far exceeding U.S. Steel’s permitted levels for months on end. I plan to weave these threads through a story focused on the massively destructive fire at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works on December 24, 2018. The destruction from the fire ultimately forced U.S. Steel to shut off vital emissions control machinery, exposing nearby communities to emissions far exceeding U.S. Steel’s permitted levels for months on end.
While much of Pittsburgh cheers for the Paris Climate Agreement, we quietly suffer from poor air quality that will likely persist as long as we continue to embrace fossil fueled cars, trucks, and industry. I hope that my film will speed up the implementation of air-cleaning, climate-helping solutions in our region by telling the stories of those on the frontiers of air quality in the Pittsburgh area. And once we learn how to transition to a truly clean air economy here, perhaps the rest of the world will seek to apply those lessons to their own air and climate frontiers.
–Mark Dixon, Director/Producer
P.S. This film is currently in production and the threads and plot details are subject to change as I dive deeper into the project. Currently I am primarily focused on editing the core film but periodically pursue additional interviews to fill out the story. Please sign up here for our e-mail list to stay in the loop as the work progresses, and please contact me if you would like to contribute to the film’s costs. Every dollar helps.
For generations, Pittsburgh lay shrouded in constant gloom as the steel mills billowed smoke day in and day out. The steel industry may not dominate Pittsburgh anymore–most of the steel plants shut down decades ago, environmental protections were instituted, and the city was reborn economically and culturally–but Pittsburgh still has some of the worst air in the nation (and the cancer rates to prove it). Despite improvements, the remaining industrial plants violate environmental regulations regularly, chronically. To make matters worse, the region suffers from a weather pattern known as an “inversion,” which traps air–and all the pollutants dumped into it–close to the ground like a foul blanket (the first “inversion” of the film’s title). Pittsburgh’s air might be better than it used to be, but is “better” good enough?
Tired of waking up to the lung-burning stench of industrial pollution, I (Mark Dixon, Pittsburgh-based filmmaker) start making a fuss. I just want to go jogging without choking on the air–is that so much to ask? I post rants on social media. I complain to the Allegheny County Health Department. I get a few sympathetic “likes” and the bureaucratic runaround, but that isn’t helping. A lot of Pittsburghers have gotten used to the smell. Some call it “the smell of money.”
But this problem isn’t just aesthetic, it isn’t just a Pittsburgh problem, and it isn’t just about me. Industrial pollution may smell bad (really bad, actually), but it also comes with enormous greenhouse gas emissions. For Pittsburgh, getting serious about climate change will mean getting serious about air quality. And vice versa.
And Pittsburgh is getting serious. A local environmental group, PennFuture, announces its “intent to sue” U.S. Steel for recurring violations at their cokeworks plant in Clairton. But right before the lawsuit is scheduled to proceed, the Allegheny County Health Department steps in and negotiates a consent decree allowing U.S. Steel to continue operations with handsome promises and limited change. The lawsuit is derailed.
It is an old pattern of half-hearted regulation. Prior settlements took place in 1979, 1993, 2003, 2007, 2008, and 2014. Politicians and governmental bodies are reluctant even to be perceived as antagonistic towards U.S. Steel here in “the Steel City.” Even in his old age, King Steel has not lost his hold on the region.
We need a new “inversion” (the second sense of the word in this film) that shifts the power from the corporations to the people. That shift starts with broad access to information. To this end, I work to install a network of low-cost air quality monitors (PurpleAir sensors) around Pittsburgh and the Monongahela Valley. Because the data maps are online, anyone can just go online and “see” the air pollution that has, in recent decades, become insidiously invisible. Residents of industry towns (disproportionately people of color) can finally show others what they have known for years: their air is still bad. And it’s killing them.
The more I talk to my neighbors about the foul air in our region, the more I find that others are eager to see changes as well. Not everyone is optimistic about our chances, though. We meet several families who are leaving Pittsburgh in search of cleaner air. But the fight goes on. Featured interviews and characters include Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab, asthma expert Dr. Deborah Gentile, citizen activist groups like ACCAN (Allegheny County Clean Air Now), and nonprofit groups like the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP). Experts, residents, and activists all say the same thing: companies like U.S. Steel are profiting at the expense of citizen health, and they are getting away with it.
The tide begins to turn on Christmas Eve, 2018. A fire at the Clairton Coke Works damages key pollution mitigators, choking the region with toxic emissions. The number of emergency department visits for acute asthma nearly doubles after the fire. Finally, even long-time Pittsburghers are starting to notice. As pollution levels rise, so does the outrage in the community. Public hearings are packed with angry citizens demanding change. The once iron-clad trust of the people has corroded to the breaking point. And the power of the people is real. Longtime local incumbents begin losing their seats in local elections; they are replaced by new leaders ready to challenge the status quo and work for real environmental protection.
But will this tectonic shift in public opinion come in time? New settlements are in the works that may establish yet another pay-to-pollute system of fines and regulations. Meanwhile, the local fracking boom is paving the way for a petrochemical buildout in the region that will rival that of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. Shell has nearly completed construction of a 300+ acre plant designed to crack ethane and produce polyethylene pellets (used in the manufacture of plastic materials). Will Shell and other industry giants be vulnerable to the displeasure of the people, or are the pollutants and carbon emissions of these new industrial facilities inevitable? Will the siren song of “jobs” drown out the voices of those who seek another way? Or will this victory for the people spur another “inversion” (the third sense), pushing industry itself to transform from a fossil fuel and combustion model to one based on renewable energy and green manufacturing?
In the end, I find that my cry of frustration is one in a chorus of empowered voices, including local residents and national experts, public testimony and published research. We have the willpower. All that’s left is the question: will we finally accomplish the “inversion” of power from corporate profit over public welfare, or will we be sent back to the beginning?
Mark Dixon, Director, Producer, Cinematographer, Editor
Filmmaker, photographer, and activist, Mark Dixon explores the frontiers of social change on a finite planet. Waking up to the impending climate crisis, Mark left a Silicon Valley career to make documentary films. His films include YERT: Your Environmental Road Trip (awards include Audience Awards at the Environmental Film Festival at Yale and the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival; released on Netflix and iTunes by First Run Features) and The Power of One Voice: A 50-Year Perspective on the Life of Rachel Carson. In 2015, he covered the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP21) as credentialed press. Recognizing Mark’s environmental advocacy and citizen science efforts, Pittsburgh’s Group Against Smog and Pollution named him a 2017 Champion for Healthy Air. Mark has presented on environmental topics to diverse audiences including Carnegie Mellon University, Yale University, Stanford University, Sony Pictures, TEDx Pittsburgh, and the U.S. EPA. You can learn more about Mark at his website: http://lens.blue/about/ .
M. Christine Benner Dixon, Assistant Producer, Assistant Editor
M. Christine Benner Dixon lives, writes, and grows things in Pittsburgh, PA. A writer, editor, and educator, Christine has dedicated herself to the craft of storytelling. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Funicular, Vox Populi, The Los Angeles Review, The Hopper, Slice Magazine, Appalachian Review and others. She has a B.A. in English from Eastern Mennonite University and a Ph.D. in English from Drew University. She is a writing workshop facilitator for Write Pittsburgh and a communication consultant for various nonprofits in Pittsburgh and beyond. You can learn more about Christine at her website: https://www.bennerdixon.com/ .
Michael Dodin, Composer
Michael Dodin is a composer, musician, and media specialist. He is currently the Digital & Tech Engagement Specialist at First United Methodist Church of Pittsburgh and also works as the Director of Multimedia with the Academy For Future Science, which is an NGO with the United Nations. He also served as a Youth Ambassador at the United Nations. He studied the Tabla under the tutelage of Pt. Samir Chatterjee and has performed at events in Switzerland, Austria, Spain, and across the United States. He studied music at the University of Edinboro, where he received his bachelor’s degree with a focus in piano performance and music composition. His compositions have been featured in many live performances, and in the documentary The Power of One Voice: A 50-Year Perspective on the Life of Rachel Carson, directed by Mark Dixon.
We are delighted to announce that Inversion Documentary has been selected as a Rogovy Foundation 2022 Summer Award Winner, receiving a significant grant as one of 5 selected out of 236 submissions. Details here.
We are also delighted to announce that Inversion Documentary also received a generous grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation in 2022.
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