Photos by Volinic Visuals
by Mia DiFelice
When you think of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, you may think of our sports teams, our rivers or the steel that helped build our country. But we have other gems, and these are emerald green.
Our County parks are huge and densely forested, the kind you can get lost in. They are oases of nature among the county’s highways and Pittsburgh’s city streets. College students lounge in the shade between classes; curious children learn about the natural world; families hike, picnic and kayak.
That’s why, this summer, the threat of fracking in county parks struck fear and anger among residents. In the culmination of years of organizing, Food & Water Watch worked with residents and local groups to pass a ban on fracking in the parks. And the long, winding fight made the victory all the sweeter.
Your support makes victories like this possible! You can hear more about this win — and what’s next — at Against All Odds, our annual benefit to protect our planet.
We Know What Happens When You Frack In Allegheny
Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh and more than 100 other municipalities, is no stranger to polluting industry. The county has been a center for coal extraction, oil and gas, steel, cokeworks and most recently, fracking.
As early as 2013 Allegheny residents were fighting fracking in our parks. Grassroots organization Protect Our Parks collected 2,000 signatures toward a moratorium on fracking in these green spaces. A bill even passed through the County Council. But our then- and current-County Executive, Rich Fitzgerland, struck it down with a veto.
In 2016, the County leased Deer Lakes Park to drilling corporation Range Resources. Range Resources has a record of environmental crime, including spills and leaks at fracking sites. So it was devastating, but not surprising, when a 2019 water quality assessment found chemical contaminants associated with fracking.
The Parks Bill Gets A New Lease On Life
After the Deer Lakes lease, the dream of a fracking ban in our parks didn’t die. Food & Water Watch organizers picked it up again in 2021 and began planning. We started a coalition of old supporters and new. We connected with state groups like PennEnvironment and local groups like Protect Franklin Park. A new bill was written to target industrial activity in the parks, including fracking.
We then turned to Allegheny County Councilmember Bethany Hallam to sponsor the bill. From years working with Hallam, all the way back to her campaign for councilmember-at-large, we knew she would be the champion we needed.
In March 2021, the bill headed to the Parks Committee, where the chair — a longtime friend of Executive Fitzgerald — let the bill die. But we didn’t lose hope.
We turned to Anita Prizio, another climate champion, to host the bill in her committee. The bill returned to the Council at the start of 2022 and was voted into Councilmember Prizio’s committee. We finally had an opportunity to get it passed.
Mobilizing Residents To Keep Fracking Out
By that time, we had already gathered a strong base of supporters and allies. In the months before the vote, we collected petition signatures and arranged meetings between residents and their councilmembers. We turned out calls, personal letters and door-to-door canvassers. We held rallies and helped dozens of residents make public comments. Ultimately, we mobilized thousands of residents in this fight.
The Parks Bill was finally introduced in Council in early July. And thanks to our strong show of people power, the ban passed by a landslide, with 11 votes out of 15.
But we knew the fight wasn’t over yet. We knew County Executive Fitzgerald, who vetoed the last Parks Bill, would do so again. Only this time, he had some tricks up his sleeve.
While Fitzgerald signed his veto on July 6, he didn’t deliver it until a week later. This cut down the already-short deadline to hold an override vote. It also forced the vote to occur during summer recess, in a special meeting.
Luckily, the bill’s cosponsors were absolute champions, and they ensured the special meeting would happen. They scheduled it a week after Fitzgerald delivered his veto.
The special meeting opened to a packed house. Industry lobbyists descended onto Pittsburgh. Having been silent the entire campaign, they were suddenly eager to tout the benefits that fracking would bring. It was clear they didn’t think the bill would advance as far as it did — and it was clear we had them worried.
The special meeting stretched over three hours. Thirty people spoke out in favor of the bill. And then finally, the Councilmembers cast their votes.
Winning A Ban On Fracking In Our Parks
We only needed 10 votes to strike down the veto, but at the 11th hour, a final vote “yes” came through. To our surprise, we had flipped Councimember Bob Macey, a longtime friend of the industry. The final count was 12 votes to override, meaning that we had done it. We had passed a fracking ban in Allegheny County Parks.
The Pittsburgh Parks ban showed the power of the people to hold their elected officials accountable. At least three councilmembers did not personally support the ban, but said they voted for it because of the flood of comments from their constituents.
It also showed the advantages of our strategy. Not only did we help supporters connect with their councilmembers; we also worked with councilmembers like Hallam, whom we had long relationships with. The support, trust and open communication we’ve built with them made this bill possible.
What’s Next For Southwestern Pennsylvania
The fracking ban in Allegheny parks is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, a state where the industry wields a lot of political power and is used to getting its way. The ban sends a clear message: Fracking is not invincible. The tide is turning.
We will no longer let polluting industry run rampant in our communities. And Food & Water Watch will be fighting with communities until we’ve banned fracking everywhere. Our Allegheny win has given us strategies and inspiration to replicate our success in municipalities across Pennsylvania and beyond.
Learn more from our PA organizer, Megan McDonough, at our annual benefit on September 29th.