ClimateDemocracyNews & Opinion
by Megan McDonough and Mia DiFelice
Update (May 17, 2023): In yesterday’s six-way primary, Sara Innamorato won the Democratic nomination for Allegheny County Executive. She will face her Republican opponent in November but is likely to become the next County Executive, thanks to the region’s strong Democratic base.
Sara’s victory shows that bold progressive candidates who serve the people, not profit, will win — even in places like Allegheny County where, historically, corporate polluters have dominated the political landscape.
Moreover, Sara’s win shows the strength of people-powered, grassroots efforts. To that end, Food & Water Action knocked on more than 40,000 doors in support of her campaign. We look forward to Sara’s term as County Executive, as she fights against corporate polluters and for a brighter, greener future for all County residents.
Western Pennsylvania, home to Allegheny County, has become the heart of the nationwide fight to end our reliance on fossil fuels. The region has seen not only the growth of fracking, but now an expanding petrochemical industry.
Until recently, fracking companies have wreaked havoc on the region — which sits atop the Marcellus Shale formation — with impunity.
But thanks to grassroots movements, including Food & Water Action’s Municipal Ordinance Project, the tide is turning. Now, there are 25 municipal ordinances protecting over half a million Allegheny County residents from fracking.
Additionally, last year we helped to pass a ban on fracking in Allegheny County Parks. Originally vetoed by the current county executive, the ban now protects 12,000 acres of County park land.
That brings us to this year’s race for county executive and the campaign of Representative Sara Innamorato. Sara has served as a climate champion in the State House of Representatives and is now running for county executive on a platform that prioritizes clean air, environmental justice, green jobs, and more. Food & Water Action is proud to endorse Sara’s campaign.
At a recent Food & Water Action event, our Pennsylvania Director Megan McDonough spoke with Sara on the importance of this race, the threat of the fracking industry, and her vision for a better future.
Below is an excerpt from Megan’s interview with Sara, edited for clarity and length.
On the Regional and National Significance of the Office of Allegheny County Executive
What makes this County such an important place for both state and national politics?
When we’re electing our national leaders, people are always looking at where Pennsylvania is going. And here in Pennsylvania, our counties are responsible for the administration of elections.
In the past, we’ve done an excellent job counting our mail-in ballots and administering elections. But we still don’t exercise the full potential of our elections division; we could be putting out ballot boxes and making it more convenient for people to vote early.
We have such an opportunity to go further, to decrease every barrier possible, so that as many people as possible can exercise their right to vote. And the excitement and infrastructure we’re building in the County, reaching the 1.25 million people who live here — that’s infrastructure we can turn over into 2024.
Why is the county executive such an important position? Why should people care — whether they live in Allegheny County or elsewhere?
Back in the day, we had a heavy industrial sector and we had — and still have — some of the worst air quality in the country. But the County passed regulations before we even had a federal Clean Air Act.
It’s the county executive and their Department of Health — not the EPA, not the state Department of Environmental Protection — that crack down on polluters and issues permits.
When we talk about the amount of pollution we’re releasing from Western Pennsylvania and its impacts, that is within the purview of the county executive. That’s one reason why this role is so consequential; not only for people who live here, but for our region and across the state.
On the Threat of Fracking in Allegheny County and Beyond
What are the risks of expanding fracking for people who live outside of Allegheny County?
Just last week, I met with folks from Dimock, who I’d been in contact with during my time as a state representative. They’ve been without water, because fracking companies came in and took what was theirs. To this day, they still do not have clean water.
And these guys from Dimock told me that one of their friends — someone who had handled fracking waste — passed away from a rare type of poisoning that he likely got from doing that job, and which he got paid $12 an hour to do.
All three of them — because of their constant exposure to fracking waste and chemicals — are sick. Their families are sick. They’re watching their neighbors die of cancer.
Elected officials are the protectors of public health, public safety, and the commons. Previous officials have let companies destroy all of those things in the name of jobs and corporate profits. We can’t let that stand any longer.
When we make decisions about what industries we invite into our backyards, the voice of the community is most valuable. We have this opportunity to set ourselves on a new path away from extraction. To not only begin clean-up and right the wrongs from the past, but also offer opportunities and participation in this new green economy.
And, we want this to be a regional effort. That’s where we’re going to make a real and tangible difference — not only in the lives of the people here in Allegheny County, but throughout our region, and across the state.
We mentioned the parks ban earlier, the first successful anti-fracking initiative at the County level. Would you support expanding that as a county executive to other County-owned lands, or possibly County-wide?
Absolutely. We believe we have the legal options and that we can exercise the full power of our Department of Health to write an ordinance that will give us the opportunity to ban fracking. That would be an incredible win not only for the County, but throughout the Ohio River Valley.
It’s good for our economy, too, because we’ve seen time and time again how oil and gas companies come in and say, “This is how many jobs we’ve made. Look at all this money we’ve made.”
And then we see what’s happened to communities that are heavily fracked over the course of 10 years. They’ve lost population. They’ve lost jobs. The income per capita has declined, and devastation has been left in the wake. People are sick. They are without clean water, and they can’t use their farmland or any other green space.
So this is going to set us on a course of saying, “We’re ready for a new economy, one that’s more inclusive, one that is justice-centered.” We’re ensuring that prosperity is shared, especially in places that have been left behind for far too long.
We’re planning and creating the jobs of the future. We can say, “We’re not only going to shut things down, but we’re going to bring in jobs and companies.” We’re going to invite companies that are part of our community and care deeply — that don’t just throw some money at a public works project here and there, but are truly a part of the community.
That way we can get all of these things. We can win on the environment, we can win on good public health, and then we can win on creating prosperity that is sustained and that is shared.
On the Relationship Between Public Health, Justice, Jobs, and Climate
How do you plan to tackle the problems of polluters and public health? And are you open to meeting with people to come up with those solutions?
Absolutely. I believe that being an elected official and governing is a team sport. Most importantly, that means working with people who are most impacted by policy decisions being made in halls of power that they typically are not a part of.
We need to go into communities that are impacted by industries and government inaction. And we need to rebuild the Health Department — specifically the Air Quality Division — so we can enforce better, strengthen our health and safety standards, and incorporate environmental justice into our permitting decisions.
We have a Clean Air Fund, and when the past county executive administration fined industrial polluters, that money was supposed to be directed to citizens who have been most impacted by pollution. For so long, it has been a mystery where that money has gone. The way that the fund has been used has not been transparent, and there are millions of dollars in it.
It would be a small but meaningful gesture to reinvest that money into communities that have been disproportionately harmed by our industrial polluters.
Last year you finished the legislative session by passing the Whole-Home Repair Act. Congratulations! Why did you work to write and pass that bill? And what do you hope will come out of it?
I live in a very rapidly gentrifying urban neighborhood. I have seen development come into my community, which was traditionally very working class. My neighbors were being offered cash for their homes, and rents were rising. They weren’t able to benefit from the investments that finally came after decades and decades of waiting.
Not only did I see my neighbors go through it. When I was a teenager, my dad suffered from addiction. My mom, my sister, and I left him, and we went from having this really solid middle class life to losing our stability and losing our home. I know how important it is for everyone to have a safe, stable, and healthy home. That really drove my work as a State representative.
And we can’t think about things like housing in a silo. We have to think about them in an intersectional way.
In Western PA and across Pennsylvania, climate change is manifesting as more intense rainfall, happening in a shorter amount of time. Basements are flooding, more homes are susceptible to landslides. Our infrastructure — including our most vital infrastructure, our homes — is deteriorating faster.
I knew that with a home repair program, we would have an opportunity to tackle many things. We would be able to help people stay in their homes, especially in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. Having a home repair can make a huge difference in sparking an upward spiral of community development and community investment.
And, by weatherizing and making homes more energy efficient, we’re reducing our overall energy use. The bonus is that this work cannot be outsourced. People who live in the region must do it. So the money that we are investing in these types of repairs, it’s circulating in the local economy.
On What It Means to Support Her Campaign
We are less than one month out from the election. As in any campaign, the last few weeks are critical. Can you tell us why it’s important for people to get involved right now, and how they can do that?
We’re at a critical point in this campaign where we have the polling. We know that when people know about this campaign, they are more than likely bought in.
We’re inviting them to participate. We are saying, “There is plenty of room for you because we are a multi-racial, multi-generational, working class-centered campaign. There is room for all of us.”
And so your time, your money, your networks — they are invaluable at this point in the campaign. That’s what we need on election day. We need to make sure that we’re exhausted. That we have reached every single person that we are capable of reaching. Because that’s the way that we are going to build a better world. That’s how we’re going to make sure that we have key re-elects next year, and we protect what we value most.
That’s what your investment means. It’s an investment in me. It’s an investment in this vision. And it’s an investment in the future of democracy and this green economy that we are going to build together.
Help us support candidates like Sara and a fracking-free future!