Design by Brett Yasko.  Photo copyright © Scott Goldsmith/TDW 2013

Design by Brett Yasko.  Photo copyright © Scott Goldsmith/TDW 2013

"In the Air: Visualizing What We Breathe" is a collaborative project documenting air quality in Western Pennsylvania.  Photographers Scott Goldsmith, Lynn Johnson, Annie O'Neill and Brian Cohen, along with writer Reid Frazier, designer Brett Yasko and curator Laura Domencic worked together to document the social, environmental and economic factors contributing to air quality in Western Pennsylvania.  The work went on exhibit in Pittsburgh in late 2015 and was featured in the New York Times "Lens" column.

"In the Air: Visualizing What We Breathe" was funded by The Heinz Endowments.

The images in this section are organized by photographer.  Click on the thumbnails below to view them.

 

Lynn Johnson - "Ever-Present Towers"

Drive into working class Cheswick, PA, walk up the hill in Springdale, float past these communities on the Allegheny River—it doesn’t matter the vantage point—they all have in common one sight: the stacks of the NRG Coal-fired Power Plant. One of 800 NRG plants across the country, its stacks can be seen from the Goodwill store and the VFW Post, from Sheetz Gas Station and Glen’s Frozen Ice Cream stand. They follow you like the eyes in a painting, around the room, around the town. The stacks’ footprint and breath are everywhere from backyard pools and parks to the grit and grime on porches, windowsills, bedroom walls. Ever present like weather or air, they have become invisible to all but a few dedicated activists.

One tower is old, silent now. The other is taller, updated with scrubbers, and belches an almost continuous plume of what appears to be roiling smoke. No one seems to know with certainty what chemicals hide in that cloud as it shoots into the atmosphere and drifts up river across the hills— out of sight and into the lungs and lawns of neighbors.

Nationwide, power plants account for 40 percent of carbon dioxide, two-thirds sulfur dioxide and 22 percent of nitrogen oxides. These and other pollutants can trigger asthma attacks, contribute to lung and heart disease. Mercury, a neurotoxin is particularly harmful to children and developing fetuses.

In a 2006 study, the Cheswick plant was rated 17th, on a list of the America’s 50 dirtiest sulfur dioxide polluters by the independent Environmental Integrity Project.

The NRG stacks are woven into the culture here. The High School football team calls them, the “stacks of doom” and chants that moniker as a war cry before taking the field. Most ironically, they can be seen from the side yard of Rachael Carson’s original homestead. The mother of environmental awareness lived just up the hill from where these vertical cannons stand today. It was there she wrote Silent Spring, a warning for the future, now our present.  On a recent map that shows the spread of large and fine particle pollution from the Cheswick plant, her home is in the red zone.

 

Lynn Johnson - "Duquesne Court"

Susan, Judy, Rita, Professor Jim, Joe, Cassandra, Madison, Irene, Angelica—are among the approximately 30 families who live here in Duquesne Court. They consider each other family. The modest homes were built in the 1920’s, housing for local workers. Today the duplexes are home to working class families and retirees. Relationships are fueled by gossip and neighborhood barbeques, gardens and shared childcare. They know each other’s patterns and ailments—Rita had thyroid cancer a few years ago, one neighbor has heart issues, another can’t breathe. Two couples have lost children to chronic illness and crib death. 

Most of the residents can’t afford to move. They are families starting out, retirees on fixed income and transplants that have lost their jobs and need a low rent refuge. Some are afraid to challenge NRG. Others are determined to protest its presence.

According to EPA studies, fine particle pollution from power plants contributes to thousands of premature deaths each year. Sulfur dioxide in particular can significantly harm the cardiovascular and respiratory health of people who live in the shadow of the plants. Bubbling paint on the outside of these homes makes one wonder at the condition of the inside of their bodies.

Annie O'Neill - Using 4x5 Polaroid film, Annie O'Neill created a series of portraits of survivors of the Donora smog inversion of 1948.  Twenty people died over the five days of the inversion, and 7,000 more were sickened.

Scott Goldsmith - the social and environmental effects of poor air quality.

Brian Cohen - air quality and the landscape of south-western Pennsylvania.