Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The "Silver Lining" of Rust Belt Decline Revisited

In Chapter 4 of my new Green Cities book, I discuss at length the environmental benefits of de-industrialization. The New York Times offers a nice case study today. While the article simply polls just a few people, the Times found some people in Steubenville Ohio who would prefer the "good old days" featuring polluted air and steel jobs versus clean air and no steel jobs.

Relative to the boom years, this town's population has declined but the city is greener. Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth is conducting a broader study of this same point. How do "post-industrial" Rust Belt cities evolve over time?

While the Times article doesn't mention it, I bet that home prices in Steubenville are really low. This could attract poor people to migrate to such an area. The article does not touch on whether mobile industries are migrating to this area to take advantage of low land prices and low wages. If we look at a map, is Steubenville within 75 miles of any major cities or is it physically isolated? Many upper New York State communities are close enough to NYC to transform into "country estates" for the wealthy. Such rural "consumer cities" would be one re-development strategy now that this area has been "greened"

New York Times

September 27, 2006
Steubenville Journal
As a Test Lab on Dirty Air, an Ohio Town Has Changed

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio, Sept. 23 — For three generations, people here commuted beneath the scraggly bluffs along the Ohio River to jobs where they made the steel from which 20th-century America — the cars, the skyscrapers, the cans — was built.

Then, starting in the 1970’s, Steubenville residents began contributing more personal raw material to a different sort of endeavor. They provided details about their lung function and cardiac rhythms, about the manner of their lives and the cause of their deaths, to the science on which 21st-century air pollution policies are built.

Data from Steubenville have played a central role in many decisions by the Environmental Protection Agency on air pollution regulations, including two of the more controversial — one in 2005 setting the first limits on mercury emissions, and another last week to tighten one but not both of the standards for lethal fine soot particles.

Three decades ago, Steubenville’s reputation for having the country’s foulest air made it a magnet for researchers in the young field of environmental epidemiology.

“Steubenville is a perfect environmental laboratory,” said James Slater, a chemistry professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Two large steel mills and two plants that turned coal into furnace-ready coke for those plants operated nearby, he said, and the Ohio River Valley is prone to temperature inversions that trap polluted air. “We have it all,” Dr. Slater said.

They had it worse, a half-century ago. Much of that pollution, along with a noxious odor that seemed part burnt toast and part burnt metal, has disappeared along with the jobs at the larger steel plant, across the river in Weirton, W.Va. As the pollution receded, mortality rates declined.

This trend factored into seminal studies on the health consequences of air pollution, including an oft-cited 14-year research project on the health impact of soot concentrations in six industrial cities. Douglas Dockery, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, led the research. Between the first period of the study, from 1974 to 1989, and an eight-year follow-up period, from 1990 to 1998, soot concentrations declined 24 percent and mortality rates dropped 19 percent.

Steubenville “provided the benchmark that we compared everything else to,” Dr. Dockery said, and the study was a crucial underpinning of the first federal regulations on soot, which went into effect in 1987.

In Steubenville and the other cities, Dr. Dockery recruited older adults and first graders.

“I loved it when we got pulled out of class,” said Dr. Slater’s daughter Beth Atkinson, now 38 and a homemaker in Skaneateles, N.Y. She remembered her classmates filing up to the stage of the Steubenville elementary school.

“There were three different machines, three different lines,” Ms. Atkinson said. “You had your own tube. They hooked it up to each machine.” Then, “when you blew on it, the plastic part would go up.”

As the daughter of a chemist, she said she had an idea that the people with stronger lungs could make the plastic rise higher in the tube, and she wondered about the harm caused by the pollution.

“I’d picture some ‘Little House on the Prairie’ place,” with clear air and blue skies, she said. “I’d imagine those children blowing into the machine. I’d wonder how much they could blow. I’d wonder if our lungs would be as good as theirs.”

The studies — at least three are under way right now — have been going on so long they have involved two generations. In the late 1990’s, Ms. Atkinson’s nephew, Wesley Myers, then about 9, lugged a small air-sniffing backpack everywhere he went for two weeks. “Every half-hour I had to write where I was, what I was doing,” said Wesley, now a senior at Catholic Central High School in Steubenville. “I did it for the money” — $100 — he said.

Dr. Slater, Wesley’s grandfather, is the scientist on the scene for researchers from Harvard and the University of Michigan. He tends a cluster of monitors on the Franciscan campus, harvesting the data.

He takes visiting scientists to the Hunan restaurant in the old downtown, where Alice Wong, the proprietor, remembers the visitors’ tastes, if not their names. “The Harvard people, they liked vegetable fried rice,” she said.

Other residents, who remember when the air was dirtier and the streets and their bank accounts were fuller, speak of the scientists and their science less fondly, linking them to the town’s decline. From 1980 to 2000, census figures show, the Steubenville-Weirton population dropped faster than that of any urban area in the nation.

Franciscan University’s executive vice president, Bob Philby, recalled that when the subject of pollution came up among steel mill workers in the 1970’s, “They would say: Don’t go there. That’s pay dirt.” Since then, 9 of 10 steel jobs have vanished.

Jim DiGregory, whose family owns a garden center, was born in Steubenville in 1926, nine years after the entertainer Dean Martin. Mr. DiGregory and his wife, Loretta, were part of the original Harvard study.

Decades ago, the air “didn’t smell too good,” Mr. DiGregory said. “Maybe people died from it. But who knew what they died from then? They’d say, ‘He died of old age.’ They’d say it if he was 60 years old.”

His wife died in 1988 from a rare heart ailment, becoming part of the studies’ mortality statistics. He still fills out postcards the researchers send to see if he is still alive. Is the air cleaner? “Yes.” Is it worth the trade-offs? “I don’t think so.”

The town of 19,000 has half the population it did 60 years ago, and the outlook of many residents has changed. “Certainly 30 years ago, that was a prevailing sense here in the valley that if there’s dirt on the air there’s food on the table,’’ said Adam Scurti, 61, a lawyer. “Now, that would not be tolerated.”


Anonymous said...

Greetings from the "nice case study" for the environmental benefits of de-industrialization. It looks a little different from this side of the fence.

"While the Times article doesn't mention it, I bet that home prices in Steubenville are really low." Yes, they are because it's very difficult to sell a home in a market where there are few jobs and most of those do not pay well. Where do you get buyers for these homes? You don't. The local paper is full of sheriff sales of real estate from people who have lost their steel mill jobs.

"This could attract poor people to migrate to such an area."
No, cheap housing doesn't attract poor people. Poor people don't move here. Poor people are stuck here because they can't afford to leave. Those who can leave already have. Because of this out migration, this town is missing an entire generation. The population from 20-40 is almost non-existent. They've moved to Columbus or Charlotte or other places where they can find jobs. That leaves an overrepresentation of older folks (retirees who can't afford to move) and people under 18.

So we have people under 18, poor people on welfare and older people on Social Security. Who is paying the taxes to support the infrastructure? Not industry; it's gone. The elderly? The poor? They can't. Even if we could give the houses away, why would anyone want to move to a place with minimal public services due to a lack of a tax base?

"If we look at a map, is Steubenville within 75 miles of any major cities or is it physically isolated?"
Steubenville is less than 40 miles from a major city - Pittsburgh - another city that has taken a huge financial hit because of environmental policies.

And that brings me to a question for you. The steel mills that fed and housed generations here are closed. Yes, the air is cleaner and the rivers are as well. But where is the steel being produced now? In China and other countries that do not have even the minimal environmental safeguards that we had back in the 1950s and 60s. So the steel today is being made by countries that pollute the environment worse than any American plant of the recent past ever did. Then it's shipped to us from halfway around the world, burning fossil fuels and creating more pollution than would be generated if the steel were still produced locally. How is this environmentally sound? Yes, those of us in first world are no longer subjected to pollution. We've passed it on to the third world poor. Where is the social justice in that?

"Many upper New York State communities are close enough to NYC to transform into "country estates" for the wealthy. Such rural "consumer cities" would be one re-development strategy now that this area has been 'greened'"

Country estates for the wealthy? So the answer to rural poverty is wealthy people buying second homes and forcing the poor out of their homes? Gentrification will not help the poor. It will only push them farther into rural poverty. Please stay where you are. You and your environmental policies have helped us quite enough. We don’t need any more of this kind of help.

Anonymous said...

Steubenville is about 40 minutes out of Pittsburgh, PA.

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