PublicSource Stories for a better Pittsburgh. Sun, 04 Feb 2024 12:37:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 PublicSource 32 32 196051183 On a frigid and fiery night one year ago, a train upended lives in East Palestine Sat, 03 Feb 2024 10:30:00 +0000 three people stand in front of a house

One night in March, Lonnie awoke long before sunup. She saw Dave awake in the recliner beside her. He’d been thinking about chemical contamination. In those days after the derailment, he wondered, what did they breathe into their lungs?

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three people stand in front of a house

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — One day in mid-October of last year, Lonnie Miller sat at a small table in her kitchen and thought about the issues that had come to dominate her life: the nightmares about fires and rats, the unusual health problems, the meetings with counselors and physicians, the hateful comments she’d read on social media.

She’d lost her business and was in the process of saying goodbye to her house of nearly 30 years. So much of what Lonnie cherished had been shattered. The village she loved no longer felt like home. At least her small family remained intact and, she hoped, healthy. 

The blare of a train horn interrupted her thoughts.

Norfolk Southern tracks run 200 feet from Lonnie’s house on East Clark Street. In her neighborhood, the cadence of life conforms to rail traffic. Passing trains stop conversations as well as traffic. Families watching movies on TV hit the pause button until the rumbling and blaring stops. As a toddler, Lonnie’s son, Austin, pressed his face against a front window to catch glimpses of the passing cars, and they called to him. Gondolas, hoppers, tankers — he learned all the names. Thomas the Tank Engine smiled at him from the pages of children’s books. It was a way of embracing the seemingly benign, inescapable and even friendly presence of trains.

No longer. Lonnie now shivers at the shrieking of rail horns.

“I hate being here and hearing the trains,” she said. “I hate it. For eight months of my life, nothing has been normal.”

Change — fiery, loud and abrupt — arrived on a frigid Friday evening one year ago. In the following days, people who’d never heard of East Palestine viewed their first images of the village. Here’s what they saw: colossal towers of smoke, roiling flames and blackened rail cars — the things that came to symbolize a place once known for its production of rubber and pottery and where Bob Hope earned his first paycheck as an entertainer. 

The world fixated on the unfolding environmental disaster for a few days, then moved on. East Palestine’s 4,700 residents were left to figure out how to live in a transformed village. Some residents yearned for normalcy and returned to daily routines. Some decided the health risks were too great and moved out. A few feared their homes were contaminated and wanted to leave but couldn’t afford to do so.

Their stories of fear, frustration, resolve, determination and anger unite them with a growing list of communities whose names are now synonymous with contamination — Flint, Love Canal, Three Mile Island, Times Beach. What separates the East Palestine stories is the way they begin: with a singular, terrifying event.

Calm, then chaos

By 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, Lonnie Miller had covered herself in a blanket and settled into a living room chair. Her husband, Dave, leaned back in a recliner beside her. The glow of a TV filled the room. Son Austin, 21, listened to music in his bedroom downstairs.

For Lonnie, 47, this was an ideal way to end the week — curling up at home with those she loved nearby, watching something on Netflix and sending occasional texts. She likes to stay in touch. On this night, she texted two people — her sister, Connie, and a friend. The three discussed a village proposal to change food truck licensing fees while Dave, 53, nodded off. He had risen before 3 a.m. to begin his day as a crew leader at a metal stamping company in Columbiana. By now he was running out of gas. 

A man standing in a room behind an open doorway.
Dave Miller looks out of the window of his family’s home on East Clark Street in East Palestine, Ohio, on Jan. 15. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Twenty-six miles west of the Miller home, an eastbound Norfolk Southern train designated as 32N barreled through the Ohio town of Salem. Security cameras focused on frigid parking lots captured images of the train as it passed in the distant darkness. Video showed the orange glow of a fire under the wheels of the 23rd car in the train.

A massive collection of 150 rail cars and three locomotives, train 32N extended 9,300 feet and weighed 18,000 tons. Twenty of its tank cars contained hazardous materials — flammable and combustible liquids and gasses. 

The train began its journey two days earlier in Madison, Illinois, just outside of St. Louis. Its path arched into northern Indiana and Ohio before veering southeast toward the Pennsylvania border. Twice the train developed mechanical issues, once at Bement, Illinois, and again near Williamsport, Indiana. In both instances, crews made repairs, and the train was cleared to continue on its route.

Approximately 20 minutes after leaving Salem, train 32N entered Columbiana. One witness heard the train emit a “loud metal screeching sound.” In New Waterford, 6 miles from East Palestine, sparks flew from the burning wheel of the 23rd car. Investigators would later issue a preliminary report revealing that the fire was the result of an overheated wheel bearing.

Traveling at 47 mph, train 32N screeched through East Palestine with the 23rd car trailing flames and sparks that extended the length of the car. At the Market Street intersection, the burning car passed within feet of a Marathon gas station.

Train 32N’s journey came to its disastrous end at 8:54 p.m. on the east side of town, just past the North Pleasant Drive intersection and 1,800 feet from the Miller home. Thirty-eight of the train’s cars toppled off the track and piled into an accordion-shaped tangle of dented and twisted steel. Some of those cars burst into flames.

The thundering sound of metal thumping against metal jolted Lonnie from her Friday night serenity. Lonnie was accustomed to train noises. This one was different. Unusually loud, it rattled windows and hinted at something calamitous. Alarmed, she turned to Dave. “I think a train derailed,” she said.

Half asleep, Dave shrugged it off. It’s just slack in the train, he said. They heard it all the time.

Lonnie didn’t think so. She texted Connie: Had she heard the noise? Yes, Connie replied. She lived farther north on North Pleasant Drive, more than a mile from the tracks. 

Lonnie nudged Dave. Something big has happened, she insisted. Dave rose from his chair, put on his shoes and walked outside to see for himself. The night was exceptionally cold, about 10 degrees, but otherwise quiet and normal. Then Dave looked east and saw an orange glow on the horizon. Smoke rose into the sky.

While Dave was outside, Lonnie rushed downstairs to alert Austin. At first, he thought his mother was joking, but he followed her upstairs. Dave came in from the cold and told Lonnie she was probably right, a train had derailed. He told them about the flames. They could see for themselves from the front porch.

Dave wanted to get closer to see what was happening. Lonnie didn’t think that was a good idea. 

“We know people who live in that area,” Dave said. Maybe they’d need help. Dave backed his pickup truck out of the driveway and headed east, down nearby Martin Street.

A fire burns above a train wreck at night.
Nathan Velez shot this picture from his truck and sent it to a Youngstown TV station shortly after learning about the derailment. (Photo courtesy Nathan Valez)

Nathan Velez learned about the crash from his brother-in-law, Steven, who had called and left several messages. Nathan, 32, had returned home after working all day in his small engine repair shop on East Taggart Street and was busy fixing dinner for his family. He wasn’t paying attention to his phone. When he finally returned the call, Steven was excited. “Dude, somebody got hit on the tracks,” he said.

Steven lives on East Taggart Street, near the crash site. The impact had shaken him out of bed. He originally thought a train had collided with a vehicle at an intersection. “I can’t believe you didn’t hear it,” he said to Nathan. With two kids and two dogs, the Velez household could be a noisy place. Outside sounds often go unnoticed. Besides, the Velez house was located more than four blocks from the railroad tracks.

Nathan hung up the phone, turned to his son, Troy, 9, and said, “Hey, bud, hop in the truck. Let’s go.” The two headed east, to the end of East Clark Street. There, Nathan could see a jumble of burning and overturned cars that extended at least a few hundred feet. The scope of the fire stunned him. A number of tanker cars were fully engulfed, and the flames were spreading. He could see them jumping from car to car along connecting hydraulic lines. 

Nathan pulled out his phone and took a picture, then sent it to a Youngstown TV station with a simple note: “Train derailment in East Palestine.”

Nathan lowered a window. He and Troy could feel the heat of the fire. A moment later, something exploded with enough force to shake Nathan’s truck. He put the vehicle in gear and drove quickly back to his home. He had no idea what was in those tanker cars, but he knew the danger of applying extreme heat to pressurized containers. An acetylene tank had once ignited in his shop — It shot upward with enough force to put a hole in the roof. And as a kid, he’d throw empty spray paint cans in campfires and wait for the “boom,” a game country boys played. Nathan looked at those rail cars and saw potential bombs.

‘I think we should leave’

Bob Figley was relaxing in the basement of his home on South Pleasant Drive when one of his employees called to tell him something big had happened in front of Figley’s store, Brushville Supply on East Taggart Street.

Figley and his wife, Marilyn, live on 30 acres of property about a half-mile from the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks. He got dressed, then drove north. At East Taggart Street, he saw before him a wall of flames rising at least 100 feet into the air. It looked like something out of a dream — or a nightmare.

He turned right onto East Taggart and pulled into the parking lot of his hardware store, which sits on a hill and offered a view of the disaster unfolding below. For a while, he and a few others — neighbors and an employee — watched in awe as firefighters poured water on the derailed cars. One person mentioned some of the cars contained chlorine or maybe chloride. It was just a rumor (several cars, in fact, contained vinyl chloride), but the possibility that the cars held dangerous chemicals alarmed Figley.

“I think we should leave,” he said.

A fire burns at the far end of a train
Shortly after the derailment, Dave Miller crossed East Clark Street and saw the flames from the tracks near his home. (Photo courtesy Dave Miller)

From the Millers’ home, the fire looked menacing — a looming mass of raging flames and smoke just beyond homes down the street. But that perspective of the blaze, from its western end, proved deceiving. It was in truth much larger. Dave, like Nathan, had driven to Martin Street and seen the fire’s terrible breadth. When he returned home, he told Lonnie, “It’s big.”

By now, sirens screamed all over town. About 300 firefighters from 50 different departments would eventually respond to the disaster. Lonnie grew concerned about her neighbor, an elderly woman who lived alone. So she stepped outside, crossed the lawn and walked up a series of steps to the neighbor’s door.

Eastbound emergency vehicles roared and honked down nearby streets. The sky directly above was clear — Lonnie could see the moon and stars. However, the eastern sky was completely obscured by a rising column of smoke that reflected the growing fire. This is crazy, she thought.

Lonnie pounded on her neighbor’s front door. After several minutes the neighbor answered, stunned and confused. She’d slept through the event. What’s going on? she asked. 

While the two women talked, a man approached from the sidewalk and said everyone had to leave the area. Local police had begun evacuating nearby residents.

“Where do I go?” the neighbor asked. “I don’t have any place to go.”

The man offered no advice. “You just need to leave,” he said.

“Just get in your car and go,” Lonnie said. The neighbor indicated she’d head to a relative’s house in nearby Salem.

Back at her home a few minutes later, Lonnie told Dave they needed to go someplace safer, but Dave demurred. If everyone left, he wondered, who would protect the neighborhood? What if looters came?

Standing in the living room, Lonnie and Dave’s conversation was interrupted by the wail of a train horn and the screeching sound of train brakes. Lonnie froze.

“Oh, my God!” she said. “There’s a second train!” She braced herself for the impact of a locomotive crashing into the derailed cars. It didn’t happen; the train stopped in time. But the incident added to the stress. Everything seemed to be spinning out of control. 

The family made a quick decision: Lonnie and Austin would go to Connie’s house on North Pleasant Drive. It’s certainly safer there. Dave would stay on East Clark Street with the family’s two English shepherds, Chevy and Lincoln.

Austin was the first to leave, heading out in his Honda Civic. Lonnie stuffed a few items into a bag, gave Dave a hug and said, “I love you.” She then climbed into her small SUV and began the journey to Connie’s place.                                        

She immediately ran into a problem: Traffic clogged all routes to North Pleasant. It seemed everyone was trying to flee town or get into town to see what was happening. Plus, there were all those emergency vehicles.

Alone in her car and stuck in traffic, with sirens blaring all around her and a fire blazing out of control less than a half-mile away, Lonnie began to panic. She worried about Austin — certainly he was caught up in this mess of traffic. She called Connie, who said Austin had not yet arrived. “He should have been there by now,” Lonnie thought. Where was he?

A man working on machinery in a repair shop.
Nathan Velez works in his small engine repair shop on East Taggart Street in East Palestine, Ohio, on Jan. 24. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Nathan Velez returned to his East North Street home and told his wife, Nicole, what he’d seen. “Babe, we’ve got to get out,” he said. Nicole held the couple’s 1-year-old daughter, Cambria. It was nearing the child’s bedtime.

“What are you talking about?” Nicole said. “It’s nine at night.”

“It’s not good,” Nathan said. “Everyone is going to have to leave.”

Nathan’s serious tone alarmed Nicole. She began gathering supplies she’d need to care for the baby — diapers, clothes, food. It was now past 10 p.m. TV news played in the background while family members packed. A news anchor mentioned the train derailment, and a photograph of the fire flashed across the screen. “Hey, Dad,” Troy called out. “That’s your picture.”

Nathan grew concerned about his mother-in-law, who lived on East Clark Street. So he drove to her home and brought her back to his family’s East North Street house. Steven, his wife, Haley, and their dog joined the Velez family, and they all secured rooms at a Beaver Falls hotel.

Nathan, Nicole and the children piled into Nicole’s Toyota SUV and headed to a downtown gas station to fill the tank. Market Street was packed with emergency vehicles. The entire town, it seemed, was alight with flashing red and blue lights. The situation was even more dire than Nathan thought.

He told Nicole they needed to return home to get a small safe and the guns the couple owned. Once there, Nathan checked to make certain he’d locked his pickup truck. He noticed a thin layer of what he thought was snow on the vehicle. He rubbed his finger across the metal and discovered the snow was actually ash.

(Jennifer Kundrach/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

This can’t be healthy

Feeling trapped on East North Street, Lonnie made an abrupt U-turn — later, she was certain she’d driven into a resident’s yard — then took a long, looping route to Connie’s house. As she descended a hill overlooking town, Lonnie was stunned by what she saw. A massive conflagration now dominated what was normally a bucolic view. She stopped, rolled down her window and took a single photograph.

A few minutes later, Lonnie was relieved to see her son, Austin, sitting in Connie’s living room. She plopped down on a couch, then she and Connie called their mother, Dorothy Davis, who lived a few miles away in Pennsylvania.

The sisters spent the next several hours texting friends and checking Facebook for updates. Residents all over East Palestine were posting reports on what they’d seen and heard. People speculated about what was in those burning tanker cars. At one point, someone suggested it was malt liquor. It was difficult to determine what was truthful.

Meantime, back on East Clark Street, Dave remained in the house until around 11:30, when he detected a strong chemical odor. It smelled like burning plastic or paint. This can’t be healthy, he thought, so he loaded the dogs, Chevy and Lincoln, into the cab of his pickup truck and drove off. He headed west to the Market Street business district, where he noticed something odd: Although Market was farther from the derailment, the odor there was more pungent than on East Clark.

For a while, Dave cruised around town, stopping on occasion to take a few pictures. Exhausted, he pulled into the parking lot of a Dollar General Store on state Route 14 so he could get some sleep. The two dogs curled up in the back seat of his extended cab while Dave reclined in the driver’s seat. Dave closed his eyes. More than 2 miles from the derailment, he could still smell a chemical odor.

fire and smoke drift into a night sky
Hours after the derailment Dave Miller shot this picture of the flames and clouds from Ohio 14, a few miles north of the disaster. (Photo courtesy Dave Miller)

Nathan and Nicole and their two children checked into a hotel room around 1 a.m. Saturday morning. Cambria and Troy were by now terrified but soon settled down and fell asleep. Nathan and Nicole, shocked by what had occurred in the past few hours, spent the next several hours checking social media and news reports for updates on the derailment. They soon determined they needed to stay out of town, at least for a while.

Nicole found an Airbnb in Canfield, Ohio, about 20 miles north of East Palestine. “How long should we book it?” Nicole asked. “Book it for two weeks,” Nathan said. The couple weren’t rich — they live on income from Nathan’s small engine repair shop and Nicole’s salary as a nurse — but they saw no alternative to spending the money. Nathan had seen the fire double in size in an hour. He knew the explosive potential of those tanker cars. At 6 a.m. Saturday, after spending five hours at the Beaver Falls hotel, the family departed for Canfield.

Having been up all night texting friends and checking for updates, Lonnie returned to her home around noon Saturday, hoping to persuade her husband to leave. She found him folding laundry in the dining room. Daylight streamed in through a window, illuminating a very fine glitter suspended in the air. It looked metallic. Officials had yet to release information about the materials burning in those derailed cars, but Lonnie suspected the glitter wasn’t good. She pinched the air with her fingers. “Can’t you see what’s in the air?” she asked Dave. “Why are you here? We need to get out of here!”

Dave didn’t see the urgency. After a tumultuous Friday night, Saturday seemed normal. He could still smell chemicals, but the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency issued a statement saying the air was safe. Dave had seen men in hardhats walking along the railroad tracks across the street. They weren’t wearing gas masks, so how bad could it be?

Lonnie wanted to leave but wouldn’t do so without her husband. The couple remained at East Clark Street as the derailed cars continued to smolder and burn throughout the day. Austin returned home that evening. Meanwhile, friends who’d decided to leave East Palestine and stay in hotels texted Lonnie, urging her to get out.

‘Risk of catastrophic failure’

On Sunday morning, a deputy from the Columbiana County sheriff’s department arrived on East Clark Street and asked Dave how many people were in the house. Officials were getting a head count, the deputy explained. Lonnie asked the man about chemicals on the train, and he suggested she go to the community center at a local park. She could get answers there.

By then, officials had announced that some of the burning cars contained vinyl chloride, a combustible material known to cause cancer. Lonnie drove to the information center but got few answers there. People wearing Norfolk Southern shirts seemed more interested in collecting residents’ information — phone contacts and Social Security numbers, for example — than in helping people and answering questions about chemical exposure, she said later. Lonnie left angry and appalled at the lack of urgency.

At home, Dave kept thinking about the odd smells. It didn’t make sense. Why were the chemical odors more pronounced downtown, farther from the derailment? At one point on Sunday afternoon, Lonnie showed Dave social media posts of dead fish in Sulfur Run, a creek that runs past the derailment site and through the village’s downtown.

It was then that the danger became real for Dave. He threw his hands in the air. “Oh, my God, it’s already in the water,” he said. “That’s why there’s dead fish. That’s why it smells so bad downtown.” He figured chemicals leaking from the derailed cars had contaminated the area’s creeks and waterways.

Still, Lonnie and Dave decided they could stay in East Palestine for at least a while. That changed Sunday evening, as the couple watched a news conference held by local officials and carried live on Facebook. After a delay of several minutes, East Palestine fire Chief Keith Drabick sat down at a microphone to announce a “drastic change” in the vinyl chloride in one of the derailed cars.

“We are at risk now of a catastrophic failure of that container,” he said. “Measures are being taken to try to control that and prevent that from happening,” but he offered no details about those measures.

Everyone within a 1-mile radius of the derailment must evacuate immediately, he said. Those who defied the order and stayed in their homes could be arrested. The catastrophic failure, if it occurred, would produce hydrogen chloride and phosgene gas, Drabick said.

And then, less than 90 seconds after Drabick had begun talking, the news conference ended. Officials announced they would take no questions.

Moments later, each of the Millers’ cellphones emitted the high-pitched beep of an emergency alert. For Lonnie, the moment seemed filled with dread. How long did they have before the “catastrophic failure”? Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued a statement that went further, saying that the tanker could explode “with the potential of deadly shrapnel traveling more than a mile.” The Miller home was less than half that distance from the smoldering pile of cars. Could the explosion wreck the entire neighborhood? What about those chemicals? What would happen to them if the rail cars blew up?

Derailed train cars in East Palestine, Ohio. (Photo Courtesy U.S. Dept. of Justice)

Lonnie rushed through the house, grabbing family photos and stuffing clothes into duffel bags. Dave began filling zip-close bags with dog food. Lonnie screamed at him, “Just take the whole container! Put the whole container in your truck right now!”

The plan was to meet other family members at the Pennsylvania home of Lonnie’s mother, Dorothy Davis, and figure out what to do. Lonnie’s sister, Connie, and her husband, John, would be there, too.

Lonnie, Dave and Austin each drove separate vehicles. The family’s two dogs climbed into Dave’s truck. In the rush to leave, Lonnie backed her vehicle into Austin’s Civic. She simply misjudged where her son’s car was positioned. This evening, like Friday, was devolving into chaos, Lonnie thought. The derailment menaced everything she cared about — her family, her home, her neighborhood. As she drove out of East Palestine, Lonnie wept and prayed.

Once everyone had arrived at Dorothy’s house, Austin confronted his mother about the crash on East Clark Street. “What the hell, Mom?” he screamed at her. Then he saw the look on her face, realized how upset she was, and the two embraced. “I’m sorry,” Austin said.

Dave called hotels, searching for a place that would accept dogs because they could not stay at Dorothy’s small mobile home. Dave found an available room in Beaver Falls, but Dorothy wanted Austin to stay with her. Lonnie relented. She and Dave and the dogs headed to Beaver Falls. At least for now, it seemed, everyone was safe.

At the hotel later that night, Lonnie had trouble calming her dog Chevy. Voices in the hallway and the sound of other people with animals moving into rooms added to Chevy’s anxiety. The dog shook uncontrollably. Around 1 a.m., Lonnie decided to take her for a walk. 

Passing through the hotel lobby, Lonnie saw a group of workers waiting for room assignments. The workers were covered in black dust, like coal miners. She figured these were men who’d been trying to put out the fire in East Palestine, so she walked up to one of the older workers and thanked him for helping the town. “Ma’am,” the man said in a thick Southern accent, “this is what we do. We go from town to town and clean things up like this. After this, there will probably be another one.”

His words shocked Lonnie. Another one? How often does this happen? 

The past few days had been emotionally overwhelming. The derailment destroyed normal life on Friday night. Then, on Saturday, things seemed to settle down. Now Lonnie wasn’t sure she’d ever see her home again. Stressed and physically exhausted, Lonnie returned Chevy to the hotel room, then walked into the bathroom, shut the door, sat on the floor and cried.

A black cloud

Five of the tanker cars containing vinyl chloride remained intact after the derailment, but Norfolk Southern officials and their contractors felt at least one of them was unsafe because a relief valve had malfunctioned. The car’s contents were heating up, officials said.

To prevent an explosion, they proposed using small charges to create holes in the five cars, allowing the hazardous material to flow into a trench where it would be ignited by flares. They called this process “vent and burn.”

Fire Chief Drabick, acting as “incident commander,” said Norfolk Southern officials and their contractors told him the situation was urgent and gave him just 13 minutes to make a decision whether to approve the vent and burn process. Drabick heard no objections from the first responders, railroad officials and hazardous materials experts that made up the “unified command.” So around noon on Monday he gave the OK.

Lonnie researched the dangers of vinyl chloride and phosgene gas, which, she learned, was used as a chemical weapon in World War I. She felt guilty about leaving her mother, Dorothy, and son Austin in an area she felt was unsafe. 

On Monday morning, she called her mother and sister, and everyone agreed they needed to leave the area immediately. A hotel room wasn’t the answer. Family members decided to drive separately and meet at a shopping center parking lot near the town of East Liverpool, Ohio, about 20 miles north. There, Dave sat in his truck and again used his phone to search for an available house or an Airbnb. Lonnie posted a plea on Facebook. Hours passed, with no luck. Everything was booked as people from East Palestine scrambled to leave town. For 4½ hours family members sat in their separate vehicles in the cold. Dave grew increasingly frustrated. At one point Lonnie, sitting in her small SUV, looked over and saw him weeping in his truck.

Finally, Dave secured rental rooms at an East Liverpool house that could accommodate everyone except Lonnie’s sister, Connie, and her husband, John, who found a separate place to stay. 

Hours passed on Monday afternoon while East Palestine residents, many now scattered about the region in hotels and Airbnbs and at the homes of friends and relatives, waited to see what would happen when officials ignited the vinyl chloride.

Nathan Velez and his family, including his mother-in-law and brother-in-law, gathered in a room at the Canfield Airbnb they’d rented. The TV was tuned to a local news station covering the story live. An iPad and cellphones streamed live feeds. Everyone was talking. When Nathan noticed the burn-off was beginning, he hollered out, “Everyone shut up. You all need to watch this. All of us in the room might lose everything right now.”

The room grew quiet. On the TV, a small fireball rising from the derailment site morphed into a massive roiling black plume. Weather conditions at the time were less than ideal. Over East Palestine, a layer of warm air lay atop colder air hovering near the earth’s surface, creating a temperature inversion. The problem with inversions is that the warm air acts like a hard ceiling, trapping smoke and pollutants.

As a result, that thick plume of smoke from the “controlled burn” rose to a height of about 3,000 feet, then spread in an ever-widening circle that soon filled the sky and darkened East Palestine. 

Nicole was the first to respond to live video of the burn. “Are you kidding me?” she said.

Nathan looked closely at drone shots and could see the family’s East North Street house below the plume. What was in that black cloud? Whatever it was, it couldn’t be safe — and it was coming down in his village. Nathan and Nicole decided to extend the Airbnb lease as long as possible. They knew they could never again live in East Palestine.

The Millers watched the same images in their East Liverpool rental. The black cloud appalled Lonnie. She imagined East Palestine as ground zero in Manhattan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with everything and everyone covered in a choking dust.

Bob Figley, the hardware store owner, looked at the black cloud and wondered, “Who thought it was a good idea to blow up a toxic bomb?”

He and his wife, Marilyn, had stayed with relatives on the west side of town in the days immediately following the derailment but made brief visits to their home and business over the next few days. They wanted to move several pregnant goats they were raising to a safer location and feed their chickens. Police called and told Bob they wanted him to shut down his business temporarily. He wondered about the future. Would he be able to reopen? Would customers return to a store so close to an environmental disaster?

A man standing in a room with work tools behind him.
Dean Cope poses for a portrait in the workshop he built behind his house, which backs up to the train tracks, on East Clark Street in East Palestine, Ohio, on Jan. 23. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

The rising plume reminded Deane Cope of mushroom clouds rising over American deserts during atomic bomb tests in the years after World War II. As a child, Deane had seen films of those tests. “My God, this is really something,” he thought as the cloud rose over East Palestine.

Deane, 79, watched the burn-off from the yard of a friend’s house in Unity Township, where he and his wife, Debbie, 67, had been staying since the night of the derailment. Debbie saw the cloud from inside the house. She and Deane were anxious to return to their normal lives and thought the burn-off would be a step in that direction.

The Copes live on East Clark Street, across from the Miller house. Norfolk Southern’s tracks run just beyond the couple’s backyard. Deane grew up on East Clark. Trains had always been a comfort to him. He remembered his grandmother feeding hobos who rode the rails decades ago.

Debbie felt differently. Those rumbling trains, passing so close to her house and rattling the walls, could be a hassle. On occasion, the couple had to straighten pictures knocked askew. In warm weather, Debbie liked to sit on the back porch and enjoy moments of peace and quiet, but she found it hard to do when trains rolled through every 30 minutes or so.

After the burn-off, Deane thought he and Debbie would soon be able to return home. But his wife wasn’t so certain. She’d struggled with blood cancer for more than a decade. All those chemicals worried her. “Is everything contaminated?” she wondered. “What’s inside the house? What are we going to be breathing?”

A man and a woman standing in a kitchen.
Debbie and Dean Cope look out their kitchen window towards the train tracks that run behind their property on East Clark Street in East Palestine, Ohio, on Jan. 23. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

‘We have to figure things out’

Lonnie, Dave and Austin remained in East Liverpool until Tuesday, Feb. 21. Lonnie wanted to stay longer. The family paid for lodging with a credit card, and she was willing to do so for another few months if needed. She felt the environmental damage caused by the derailment had rendered East Palestine unsafe. But Dave insisted. 

“We have to try to figure things out,” he said. Besides, Dave added, Lonnie needed to prepare her testimony for a Feb. 23 hearing into the derailment. The hearing had been scheduled in Beaver County by Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano. Lonnie had reached out to his office because Mastriano chaired a committee responsible for overseeing fire and emergency management, and as a result she was one of several people invited to testify. It felt good to be heard by someone with authority, she said.

Once back on East Clark Street, however, the house did not feel the same. Odors lingered, and there were health concerns. Some of Lonnie’s friends had reported rashes, chemical bronchitis, swollen faces and a burning sensation around the mouth. Lonnie herself had experienced nosebleeds and crushing headaches. “Much worse than a migraine,” she said. 

She tried to blame these on other factors — lack of sleep, stress. But she remembered the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, so mishandled at the local, state and federal level that several officials resigned and a number of others were criminally charged. (A state court found even the prosecution was mishandled, and the charges were either dismissed or dropped.) She thought of the 9/11 emergency responders in New York who experienced an increased risk of cancer due to their exposure to toxic dust, and the water contamination issue at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. She begged Dave to put their belongings in a rental truck and just leave.

“We can’t just walk away from everything,” Dave said. He got so upset at one point that he stormed out of the house, got in his pickup truck and drove away. Distressed, Lonnie turned to Austin and said, “I don’t know what Dad’s going to do.”

Her husband was “so angry and upset that he couldn’t save us, and he wanted to. He came back home within five minutes. He was just devastated.”

A man in a camouflage hoodie comforts a woman in a gray jacket
Lonnie Miller is comforted by her husband Dave as she becomes emotional recounting the days following the train derailment that upended her life in her family’s home on East Clark Street in East Palestine, Ohio, on Jan. 15. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

The couple spent that night lying in bed and listening to the trains running along tracks 200 feet away. Norfolk Southern had reopened the track a few days after the burn-off; now the rail traffic seemed never-ending. “They just kept going like we didn’t exist,” Lonnie said.

Soon, Lonnie began experiencing nightmares. In one, a house across the street became engulfed in flames, and Lonnie could do nothing to save her neighbor. In another, she and Austin sat in an automobile while a train derailed in front of them. Lonnie would wake up screaming, with Dave trying to console her. Another time, she dreamed of rats attacking in the bedroom. Lonnie’s dogs tried to fight off the rodents but were overwhelmed. A friend later told Lonnie that, in dreams, rats signify contamination.

Lonnie began sleeping in a living room chair, with a duffel bag of clothes beside her, in case another train derailed and she needed to leave quickly. Eventually, Dave, too, slept in the living room so he could be near his wife.

One night in March, Lonnie awoke long before sunup. She saw Dave awake in the recliner beside her. He’d been thinking about chemical contamination. In those days after the derailment, he wondered, what did they breathe into their lungs? He regretted driving around town and taking pictures in the hours after the railroad cars had run off the tracks. He was concerned the chemicals could already be wreaking havoc inside his body. Would he become ill with cancer or some other disease in one year? Five years? Ten years? Dave feared he wouldn’t be around when Lonnie and Austin needed him.

Lonnie and Dave wept, then embraced and prayed that God would heal and protect them. “You have to stay strong,” Lonnie said. After a while, both Lonnie and Dave calmed themselves. Lonnie then walked into the kitchen and vomited in the sink.

“We both knew there was nothing about our home and our town that would ever be the same again,” she said. They had to get out.

Dave Miller holds a model Norfolk Southern train car in his family’s home on East Clark Street in East Palestine, Ohio, on Jan. 15. Once part of a model train set that would travel a track in the Millers’ living room, it’s now stored in a box in their basement. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Nathan Velez and his brother-in-law, Steven, returned to East Palestine on Feb. 8. The chemical smell hit Nathan “like a fist,” burning his eyes and, within seconds, giving him a headache. He visited his shop on East Taggart Street, closer to the derailment. It was even worse there — “like stepping inside a can of paint thinner,” he said.

He visited a Norfolk Southern assistance center and got into an argument with a company representative who Nathan felt was demeaning and insulting. Security escorted Nathan out of the building. Nathan was stressed and exhausted. He and Nicole were spending thousands of dollars each month, bouncing from one Airbnb to another. From the night of the derailment until June, they spent more than $12,000 in lodging; Norfolk Southern eventually reimbursed them $8,500.

Nathan was outspoken and a good storyteller, so reporters sought him out. He was interviewed a number of times on local and national news programs. For a while, he kept track of the interviews but stopped counting after a few dozen.

One day, he finished an interview with Fox News then headed to an Airbnb that was then serving as a home. He was scheduled to do another interview that evening on CNN. During the trip home, Nathan’s heart began racing. Sweat poured down his face. His hands wouldn’t work.

“Holy shit, I’m having a heart attack,” he thought. He pulled into the Airbnb driveway and called Nicole. “I think I’m dying,” he said.

Nicole rushed outside, and her training as a nurse kicked in. “Babe, you’re having a panic attack,” she said. She calmed him down. He texted CNN staffers and let them know what was happening. “I’m running on fumes,” he wrote. He ended up doing the interview, believing the world needed to see what people in East Palestine were dealing with.

A man with a beard and glasses lifts a wooden pallet
Nathan Velez unloads wood pallets while making a trade with another resident outside of his small engine repair shop on East Taggart Street in East Palestine, Ohio, on Jan. 24. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

The most terrifying event to strike the Velez family occurred one day in March. Nathan was at the shop doing yet another interview when son Troy called. “Cam ate something,” he said. Nathan could hear Nicole screaming in the background. “You need to get here now!” she said.

It took Nathan 20 minutes to drive to the family’s Airbnb in Poland, on the outskirts of Youngstown. He ran inside. Nicole held Cambria, who was beet red and convulsing. Cam had ingested medicine not intended for children. It all happened so quickly. Nathan called 911, and within minutes an ambulance arrived and took Cam to a local hospital. Doctors tried to calm her heart rate with medication, but it didn’t work. So she was transferred to Akron Children’s Hospital.

Nathan and Nicole spent that night in a hospital waiting room while doctors stabilized their daughter. Cambria remained in the hospital for a week.

“This almost completely wrecked us,” Nathan later said. ​​The stress and chaos of moving from one rental place to another was becoming too much. All the packing and unpacking. At their East Palestine home, everything had its place. Now, nothing had a place. “This only happened because we weren’t in our own home,” Nathan said.

Losing more than a home

Larry Davis, left, with grandson Austin and daughter Lonnie Miller during a birthday party in 2006. (Photo courtesy Lonnie Miller)

The Millers’ home on East Clark is a narrow two-story wood structure with an American flag flying from a pole on the front porch. East Clark is lined with similar homes, modest aging structures that have been carefully maintained.

Inside, the house is cozy, the rooms decorated with antiques and collectibles: old muffin trays and rolling pins in the kitchen, vintage tins for baking soda and other cooking staples, Coca-Cola crates, classic print ads for Lionel model trains. The Millers raised their son, Austin, here and had planned on passing the house to him when they retired and possibly moved south, perhaps to the Carolinas or Florida. That won’t happen.

In the months after the derailment, Lonnie and Dave put the house on the market. They’d taken out another mortgage to purchase a house in Leetonia, a small Ohio town about 15 miles west. 

Losing the house broke Lonnie’s heart. After nearly 30 years, the place was filled with memories and markers of life, such as the pencil lines on a wall that tracked Austin’s growth. He was 5 months old when Dave built a garage — Austin’s footprints are imprinted in the concrete floor.

But Lonnie and Dave felt they had no choice. They could no longer trust East Clark Street to be safe.

For Lonnie the decision was especially difficult because the house represented a special connection to her father, Larry Davis.

On Sunday afternoon, Oct. 8, 2006, Lonnie’s parents were traveling along Route 551 in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, east of New Castle, when their pickup was struck by a vehicle that had run a stop sign. Three teenagers in the vehicle died, and Lonnie’s father received serious injuries. A medical helicopter transported him to a hospital in Youngstown, where he spent much of the next several weeks in a coma.

Larry Davis regained consciousness a few times and always asked about his grandson Austin, then 4. “They were best of friends,” Lonnie said. “I made my dad a promise in the hospital to do everything I can to make his grandson safe.”

Larry Davis died of his injuries in late January 2007. As a result of a settlement, Lonnie and Dave were able to pay off their home. Lonnie felt that was her father’s final gift to her. A home was something he was never able to provide for his wife. Larry Davis worked as head of maintenance at a local factory. He could fix anything, and he was a hard worker. Lonnie has pictures of him, exhausted after his shift and asleep on a couch. But he never made much money.

“I watched Dad struggle for years and years, trying to provide for my mom and my sister and I,” Lonnie said. “We lived in a trailer, a mobile home, and he regretted that. He wished he could have built my mom a beautiful house.”

In death, he was able to provide a house for his daughter. Now, Lonnie had to part with that gift. “I feel like I’m losing my dad all over again,” she said.

A woman sits in a room with wooden panelling.
Lonnie Miller cries as she watches a model train travel a track around the living room of her family’s home on East Clark Street in East Palestine, Ohio, on Jan. 15. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

‘We couldn’t make it’

The Millers’ new place in Leetonia needed a lot of work. Interior walls were punctured by holes; junk filled the rooms. Lonnie knows antiques and collectibles, and the only thing of value she found was a lamp worth about $50. Mice infested the place. Racoon droppings littered the floor.

Outside, the yard was littered with trash — everything from toothpaste tubes to pantyhose. While cleaning up the property, the Millers filled two dumpsters with debris. The house needed a roof and electrical work. But at least it was safe, and it was nowhere near a railroad track.

By October, the family had moved out of the East Clark Street home and were staying at the Leetonia house. Lonnie enjoyed watching Dave and Austin work together to fix it up. Lonnie emptied out her Market Street antiques store, Mama’s Attic. She’d decided long before to close the business, although owning the shop had been a dream of hers. So much had changed in the town. It wasn’t just the chemicals. The derailment had created divisions in the community, in many cases turning friends and neighbors against each other. To Lonnie, it was unbearable.

Lonnie cleaned up the East Palestine house and put it on the market, something that would have been inconceivable a year ago. All of those things that made the house special had been poisoned. “If I had the money, I would tear it down myself,” Lonnie said. “I wouldn’t even ask for a permit.”

A couple laugh together while sitting on a couch with a cat in front.
Dean and Debbie Cope chat in the living room of their house, which backs up to the train tracks, on East Clark Street in East Palestine, Ohio, on Jan. 23. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Deane and Debbie Cope moved back into their East Clark Street house after staying 11 days with their friend in Unity Township. Debbie still worried that air inside the house could be hazardous, so the couple requested testing. A few men stopped by and used hand-held devices to sample the air in several places. Results revealed no hazards. Months later, though, the Copes saw news reports that indicated the testing devices were faulty. Now they don’t know what to believe.

The house has been a thread connecting Deane to his family’s past. His great-aunt lived there decades ago. As a child, Deane cut the grass in the summer and in the winter shoveled snow off the sidewalk. In 1984, he and Debbie were married in the living room. It’s the only place the couple ever owned.

“We’re not living like kings, but our needs are met here,” Deane said. He would like to stay in the house, but he’s concerned for Debbie’s health. She’d like to leave, but the couple can’t afford to move. They live on Social Security benefits and Deane’s small pension. The 2008 financial crisis wiped out their 401(k). 

“If we had to go someplace and pay rent or a house payment, we couldn’t make it,” Deane said. The couple found a place in nearby New Waterford that would suit their needs — it was a ranch home with a garage. The price: approximately $170,000, much more than the Copes can afford.

“We’ll never get that out of this place,” Deane said while sitting in his living room in January. Who wants to buy a house a hundred feet from a railroad track, especially one in a town now known for a toxic derailment? “We’re stuck.”

A woman holds up a photo of a bride and groom.
Debbie and Dean Cope hold a photo from their wedding in the same location that the photo was taken 40 years ago in their East Palestine, Ohio, home, on Jan. 23. Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Frustrations and feathers

In the weeks after the derailment, Bob Figley grew increasingly frustrated with the response by government agencies and by Norfolk Southern.

After the burn-off, some residents grew concerned about dioxin, a highly toxic pollutant created by burning vinyl chloride. Dioxin is known to cause cancer. But the EPA didn’t test East Palestine soil for dioxin until weeks after the burn-off. Those tests found the levels to be normal, or what would be expected in any community, but independent tests discovered much higher levels. Who was right? 

Bob wondered whose side the EPA was on. “Are they the Environmental Protection Agency or the Empire Protection Agency?” he asked. It bothered him that after the derailment Norfolk Southern “took over” a portion of the town without consulting the business owners whose property was directly affected by the disaster. It felt like big businesses and institutions were pushing people around.

What’s the future for him and Marilyn, and for his business? Bob grew up in East Palestine; he’s not going anywhere. His store, Brushville Supply, has been at its current location on East Taggart for 20 years.

“Where am I going to go?” Bob asked. “Everything’s here. We’ve got 30 acres, a house, barns, maple trees. That’s our retirement home. Do I want to start my life over somewhere? If there was something here that was going to kill us in a year, then, yeah, I’d leave. But we just don’t know.”

In the months after the derailment, he and Marilyn lived in a number of rental places. They were concerned about toxins in their home. “We lived out of suitcases for five months,” Bob said. Eventually, the railroad paid to have their home cleaned and the interior rooms painted, something the couple felt they needed to do in order to make the place safe.

Bob was told by the EPA his business needed to be cleaned, a monumental task in a place packed with thousands of tools, fittings, hoses, connectors and other items. He spent a lot of time getting estimates, coming up with a plan. Then he was told the cleaning was voluntary and would have to be done by a separate company. Such interactions leave people confused — is there a hazard that needs to be removed or not?

Bob wants the railroad company as well as government agencies to “come in and be straightforward and tell us the truth. Come in here and be responsible and take care of the mess you made.”

A keep out sign posted to a tree in front of a house.
A sign is posted near Sulphur Run on West Street in East Palestine, Ohio, photographed on Jan. 23. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Like the Miller family, Nathan and Nicole Velez decided to look for a new place to live. By April, their home on East North Street had been vacant for nearly three months after being exposed to whatever chemicals had been released into the air during and after the derailment. 

Nathan spent months traveling to the East Palestine house, packing the family’s belongings into plastic bins and then renovating the place — finishing a bathroom project he’d started before the derailment, repairing floors, replacing a ceiling, painting the interior walls. He and Nicole found a house they liked in New Waterford, and their offer was accepted. All of this proved costly. Nathan sold his beloved El Camino and drained money from his business, which remained closed to regular business until summer.

By November, Nathan and Nicole had sold their place at 327 East North St. One of the last items remaining in the house was a calendar that had hung for years in the family’s kitchen. It was Nicole’s habit to draw a line through the current day before she went to bed at night. The first and second days of February 2023 are marked off — those turned out to be the last days the family would spend in the house.

“So long, 327,” Nathan wrote in a Facebook post. “You were a great first house.”

Once his family’s move from East Palestine was complete, Nathan contemplated the future of his shop, located in a one-story shed packed with tools, engines, motorcycles and ATVs. Should the business remain on East Taggart Street? The chemical odors had dissipated, but what about other forms of contamination? Sulfur Run, which some residents feared was still polluted, flowed past the back door. Nathan had much to figure out.

After the derailment, as he and his family navigated various crises, Nathan began writing about his experiences. His entries were at times achingly personal and often reflective. In the fall of 2023, he wrote about the lessons he’d learned since returning Steven’s phone call on the frigid Friday evening of Feb. 3. 

“No one is coming to save you,” he wrote. “The government, the railroad, the lawyers, no one. Whatever it is you wish would happen probably won’t. Not unless you shut up and do it yourself.”

A snowy street with a sign saying East Palestine.. we won't be delayed.
A sign on West Main Street in East Palestine, Ohio, photographed on Jan. 23. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

In the early spring, Lonnie found feathers on the ground while taking her dogs for walks around her East Palestine neighborhood. She’s a spiritual person and considered these signs from angels telling her she and her family would be safe. Then a friend in nearby West Virginia told her she’d found dead birds in her yard after the burn-off. Now Lonnie thinks those feathers may have been from birds who’d flown through airborne chemicals.

Other things Lonnie once considered real turned out to be illusions. Friendships she thought were resilient fell apart over disagreements about the derailment and its aftermath. She looked at the home that once protected her and wondered if it harbored invisible hazards. Even the signs posted around the village — “EP Strong” — seemed to tell a lie. Neighbors and friends had turned on each other.

Eleven months after the derailment, Lonnie’s nightmares remained, but she no longer woke up screaming. Counseling proved a big help. The East Clark Street house had been on the market for weeks, but no potential buyers had emerged. Still, Lonnie and Dave were relieved to be in Leetonia. “We’re getting away from the threat, and this is the best we can do,” Lonnie said.

The place came with more than 2 acres, so the dogs had room to run. And perhaps its most important amenity: no nearby railroad traffic to rattle the house or nerves. Quiet dominates the landscape. Still, if Lonnie walks to the edge of the property and listens carefully, she can hear it in the distance, perhaps carried by the wind: the sound of a train, blaring its warning.

This story is part of collaborative coverage of East Palestine between the Pittsburgh Union Progress and the New Castle News, funded in part by a grant from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.

The post On a frigid and fiery night one year ago, a train upended lives in East Palestine appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

Facing tyranny, I tried to stay and fight with my pen, but had to flee for my life to Pittsburgh Fri, 02 Feb 2024 10:30:00 +0000 A man sitting on a chair.

I was stabbed, kidnapped and interrogated for writing against Islamists in Bangladesh. Now I’m continuing the fight for free expression from my new home in Pittsburgh.

The post Facing tyranny, I tried to stay and fight with my pen, but had to flee for my life to Pittsburgh appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

A man sitting on a chair.

After a long evening spent with other dissenting writers in 2001, I hailed a rickshaw to take me home. Previously, a ride late at night in my hometown, Barishal, Bangladesh, would not have worried me, but this was an anxious time. 

A few months prior, two political parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami and Bangladesh Nationalist Party, unexpectedly formed a coalition government around Islamist, nationalist principles. Just 16, I was among an angry younger generation who knew the Jamaat-e-Islami as an Islamist party that helped the Pakistani army kill hundreds of thousands of people during the 1971 Liberation War in Bangladesh. 

Now the party controlled our beloved country again. They committed some barbaric acts, such as burning houses belonging to Hindus, a minority religious group in Bangladesh. I began publishing a literary magazine with editorials criticizing the new government, and the local Jamaat-e-Islami members took notice.

As the rickshaw pulled onto the street where my family lived, a group of men with handkerchiefs covering their faces were waiting for me. The rickshaw driver vanished in fear, and I felt a sharp pain from being stabbed on my left side. I ran toward our apartment, banged on the door and screamed in pain as the group fled the scene. Though my clothes today conceal the 5-inch scar carved into me that night, the memory is still fresh.

I’m not alone among refugees in having such nightmarish memories, nor in my decision to share them. As war, political unrest and climate change drive ever-larger numbers of people to flee their homelands, it’s easy for societies on the receiving end of the flow to wonder: Why don’t people stay home? Why don’t they fight to improve their countries?

For me, the answer is: I tried.

Kidnapped at gunpoint

A person in a vest standing in front of a book shelf.
Tuhin Das, a refugee from Bangladesh, at City of Asylum on Jan. 31, in the North Side. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Being attacked didn’t stop me; I recovered and fervently published more. I wrote for other magazines across the country. A few years passed, and the looming general election bred hope that the final days of the dual-party coalition government were drawing near. 

On a chilly night in 2006, I was again reminded that my writing was not considered appropriate by everyone. While walking home, I was kidnapped at gunpoint by a government law-enforcement agency.

The commanding officer put his 9mm pistol to my head and asked, “How cold is it?” Then his team blindfolded me, beat me with wooden sticks and squished me in the back floorboard of the car. 

I remember the painful pressure as they pushed their feet on me. I assumed they would take me to their headquarters, but they drove me out of town, removed the blindfold and told me to get out of the car. As I looked around and saw a field, I heard someone say, “The last moment of your life has arrived.” I tasted blood, and though my mouth was bleeding, I could not reach up to wipe as my hands were tied behind my back. 

I next remember them driving me to their heavily militarized station with tall brick walls, where I was continuously beaten for the next four hours. Hog-tied, my hands were restrained in front of me, and my legs were lashed to a metal pole. I was interrogated about my writing; they wanted to know why I was mad at the Islamist leadership. Toward the end of the questioning, a doctor entered the room and gave me some medicine. I did not trust him, so I discreetly spat the pills out after he departed.

I could not sleep the whole night as I watched the sky from my tiny prison window. I remember understanding that night the value of art in a time of emergency, and I promised myself I would never be compromised in this regard. The next evening, they left me on the street and told me to leave the town before the election.

On an al-Qaida-related hit list

But I didn’t leave because I had important university exams to take.

The elite force returned to my house a week later. I was afraid, so I went into hiding in a neighboring town. Using a pen name, I continued writing newspaper articles advocating for a more secular Bangladesh.

After the coalition government lost the election a few months later, I felt it was safe and returned to my hometown. I continued writing and publishing and reading my poetry at public gatherings, marches and candlelight vigils as part of a nationwide effort led by activists and bloggers in 2013 pushing for a trial against prominent Islamist leaders accused of war crimes dating back to 1971.

Tuhin Das, a refugee from Bangladesh, sits outside of the Comma House on Jan. 31, in the North Side. Das designed the facade of the house, painted in the colors of the Bangladeshi flag and featuring his poetry in cut metal, above and to the left, as part of City of Asylum’s Exiled Writer and Artist Residency Program. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Fundamentalist groups started counter-protests and declared war against the activists and the bloggers. In 2015, a local al-Qaida-related militant organization published hit lists, and one for my hometown included three poets, myself included. I went to the police for protection, but they made copies of my writing. Feeling unsafe, I went into hiding.

I went to my relatives in a nearby village, but they had seen the list on TV and in newspapers and were terrified. I spent one night with them and then went 10 hours away to Chittagong, the second largest city in Bangladesh, and lived with a friend. Later, when I realized someone had started following me, I left and moved through four different cities. 

I received news that two different militant groups attacked two publication houses at the same time. One publisher was killed, and three other people were injured. During these attacks, the publishers’ pictures were broadcast in the media, and old video footage of me speaking was included, putting me at even greater risk.

From disorientation to blending in

Like fellow writers being persecuted in Bangladesh, I applied to the International Cities of Refuge Network in Norway. I was very fortunate that soon after, Carnegie Mellon University invited me to be a visiting scholar, and City of Asylum invited me to join their Exiled Writer and Artist Residency Program. I left Bangladesh in 2016 and moved to Pittsburgh’s North Side. During the month I arrived, I learned that four writers were killed in Bangladesh and I received additional threats, so I decided to apply for asylum.

I was depressed that I had to leave behind my life, my family and my belongings, but I was relieved that I didn’t need to look behind my shoulder to see if an assassin was following me. The support from the City of Asylum was life-changing as I was provided a stipend, a quiet, furnished house and other support as needed.

Books open on a table under a pink light.
The literary works of Tuhin Das, a refugee from Bangladesh, at City of Asylum on Jan. 31, in the North Side. His debut book, “Exile Poems”, was published last year by Pittsburgh-based press Bridge & Tunnel Books. The books are photographed in purple light, the color of the water lilies frequently grown in the region where Tuhin was born. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

I felt safe and secure in this house, and it enabled me to complete a poetry manuscript in which I shared my experiences in exile, and my debut book, “Exile Poems, published in 2022 by Pittsburgh-based press Bridge & Tunnel Books.

I also wrote my first novel, about the persecution of the Hindu religious minority in Bangladesh, which I was unable to write when I lived in Bangladesh because of the fatal consequences for writers who question religious-based oppression. Though I miss my friends back home, I am fortunate to have made good friends here with whom I can share my thoughts and concerns. My neighbors have been welcoming; even those I don’t know will often wave hello as they pass by. 

I had never left my home country before I came to Pittsburgh, and moving to an unknown place where people speak a different language and share different customs felt disorientating when I first arrived.

Local organizations that help immigrants navigate life in Pittsburgh, such as Literacy Pittsburgh and Jewish Family and Children’s Services, offered me long-term English classes, computer training and other career development services. I received a grant to translate my works from Bengali to English from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, which enables me to continue writing as I connect my former life as a dissident in Bangladesh to my new identity in Pittsburgh, thus bridging my own culture with my audience here in Pittsburgh. 

Though coming to Pittsburgh provided me with safety and protection, standing up for literary and political freedom required me to physically separate myself from my family and homeland — an immense pain that I feel every moment. My initial culture shock has lessened over the years, which suggests to me I have become more blended into American society.

At a recent poetry event in Pittsburgh, Jason Irwin read his poem, “Darién Gap,” which describes the dangerous journeys of asylum seekers who cross the jungle in Panama to reach the United States. Though I had a different path, I relate to their experiences, and I know that I will continue to fight for the freedom of expression because it’s worth risking everything to ensure basic human rights are protected. 

Tuhin Das is a Bangladeshi writer who lives in Pittsburgh and former writer-in-residence at City of Asylum and can be reached at

The post Facing tyranny, I tried to stay and fight with my pen, but had to flee for my life to Pittsburgh appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

Property tax appeals erode budgets as assessment burden shifts Thu, 01 Feb 2024 10:30:00 +0000 Houses in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood in the rain on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. (Original photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Rich Fitzgerald arguably benefits to the tune of thousands of dollars per year from his decision not to reassess. Sara Innamorato could lose out financially under the scenario she proposed during her campaign for executive.

The post Property tax appeals erode budgets as assessment burden shifts appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

Houses in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood in the rain on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. (Original photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Appeals of Allegheny County property assessments, unleashed by a lawsuit, are starting to bite into the revenues of governments, notably in already strained Mon Valley communities. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has stayed above water, because rising residential value has outstripped slashed skyscraper tax bills — so far.

graphic of a one hundred dollar bill superimposed inside three houses of different heights with broken green pieces

How property tax assessments create winners and losers

As thousands of pending appeals threaten to upend municipal and school budgets, County Executive Sara Innamorato is taking a cautious path on one of her key campaign planks supporting routine countywide reassessments.

A reassessment would come with political costs for Innamorato and monetary costs for some individual property owners. (It could also cost her personally, by boosting the low tax bill on her Upper Lawrenceville house.) But experts say it’s the cure for a defective system that currently overtaxes some and undertaxes others.

Even with most of last year’s appeals as-yet undecided, some municipalities saw a drop in taxable assessed value in the last two years, with much of the downturn coming in Mon Valley communities that are hurting economically. Fifty of the county’s 130 municipalities lost taxable value since the start of 2022; Homestead (10%), West Homestead (6%) and Clairton (4%) saw the biggest percentages of their tax base disappear.

Property owners filed an unusually large number of assessment appeals last year. That’s because a court ordered a change in the math used to calculate assessments determined by appeals, making it more favorable to owners.

Owners of large commercial buildings appealed en masse and are expected to win significant cuts to their assessed values, lowering their tax bills. Already, three of the dozens of Downtown towers have won appeals and seen significant tax relief. 

When big property owners saw the new tax math, “they jumped on it,” said Dominick Gambino, a local government consultant who managed the county’s assessment office from 2001 to 2003. He added that yet another change in the tax math, taking effect this year, could cause a fresh round of appeals.

While Pittsburgh’s assessed value rose 1.87% from 2022 to 2024, a PublicSource review found, a decline has already begun Downtown. 

Assessed value in the city’s 2nd Ward, which spans much of Downtown and the Strip District, dropped 3.73% during that time period, shedding more than $112 million in assessed value. Using current tax rates — measured in mills — that $112 million represents more than $900,000 in lost tax revenue for the city and $1.2 million for the city school district. And appeals for dozens more commercial properties are still pending. 

So far, value has increased enough in residential neighborhoods to make up for Downtown’s problems. The 6th Ward, in Lower Lawrenceville, saw a whopping 30% increase in assessed value ($130.2 million in taxable value). The 5th (Hill District), 16th (South Hills) and 17th (South Side) wards each increased between 9% and 13%.

But the math is unlikely to favor taxing bodies for much longer.

Looming crisis

The successful Downtown appeals are “just the beginning” of the wave of assessment cuts Downtown, said Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research. “I think what’s in the news of late of the percentage declines in these big buildings are probably typical of what most Downtown buildings will get in the short term.”

Six-figure tax bill decreases for dozens of commercial properties would have a devastating effect on the city and school district. The city is facing a razor-thin budget in the near future with an operating surplus of just a few million dollars. The school district is already operating at a deficit and is considering plans to close school buildings to cut costs.  

“One way or the other, property values Downtown are coming down,” Briem said. “It’s probably going to force a millage increase on everyone else.” That would effectively raise tax bills on property owners throughout the city to make up for the lost revenue coming from Downtown.

While Downtown owners will see lower tax bills, Briem said they are hardly winners in the situation. 

“They’ve lost, they’ve lost a lot and they’re going to keep losing,” Briem said, because decreased demand for office space since the start of the pandemic has crushed commercial building revenue. The assessment cuts are “reflecting that reality.”

Pittsburgh Public Schools solicitor sounded the alarm in a January interview.

“If these large reductions that have occurred Downtown and will continue to occur, they simply do not have financial wherewithal to sustain that,” solicitor Ira Weiss said.

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s office took a less dire tone. 

Mayor Ed Gainey gives his 2023 budget address in City Council Chambers on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023, at the City County Building in downtown Pittsburgh. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Mayor Ed Gainey gives his 2023 budget address in City Council Chambers on Nov. 13, at the City County Building in downtown Pittsburgh. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“Budget wise, the team forecasted the possibility of reduced real estate tax revenue,” said city press secretary Olga George. “Currently, Finance and [the Office of Management and Budget] are watching how real estate collections are processing.”

The mayor’s 2024 budget does not forecast a drop in real estate tax revenue. This year’s budget plans for a number slightly higher than last year’s, and the city’s five-year plan projects increases each year.

George said the city is assessing new valuations and deciding whether to contest them in court. 

Peter McDevitt, the budget director for Pittsburgh City Council, said it’s too early and there are too many variables to “hit the panic button,” but the city could eventually be forced to find new revenue or cut services. “Raising millage is not the only avenue, but it’s the most viable one” to raise revenue, he said. 

The county’s $1.1 billion operating budget, which relies on property taxes for around 37% of its revenue, is not in danger of a shortfall, according to county spokesperson Abigail Gardner.

Reassessment vs. ratios

Experts including Briem and Gambino say the fix for the county’s assessment woes lies in conducting routine, countywide reassessments — a concept Innamorato has endorsed, as long as it can be done with new protections for vulnerable taxpayers. 

Gardner confirmed that Innamorato continues to believe “that a reassessment would be a more fair and equitable way to determine values,” adding that “there are no immediate plans to engage in a reassessment.” The real estate market is shifting, she wrote in response to questions, prompting “a reimagining of how to keep our Downtown thriving.”

Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato, center, arrives for a meeting on Jan. 4, in the County Courthouse. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The last time the county reassessed all its properties was in 2013,after a judge ordered then-County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to do so. Fitzgerald never did so again.

Pennsylvania allows counties to leave decades-old assessments in place, subject to appeals where there’s evidence of rising value. 

In counties that use this “base-year” approach, properties without improvements or recent sales generally keep the same assessments each year. Where there’s evidence of a change in value, the owner or a taxing body can file an appeal.

When an appeal is filed in Allegheny County, the Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review assigns a new fair market value. That value is multiplied by the common level ratio [CLR] to come up with an assessment.

The CLR is meant to adjust appeal-generated assessments to resemble those last set in the base year. But a lawsuit revealed that the county submitted flawed data for the calculation of the CLR, and a judge forced its reduction. 

For appeals filed in Allegheny County this year, the fair market value will be multiplied by 0.545 to determine the assessment, meaning a property with a post-appeal value of $100,000 would be assessed at $54,500. By contrast, for appeals filed in 2021, the ratio was 0.875, meaning that same property would have been assessed at $87,500. 

Property owners whose assessments were boosted in prior year appeals may appeal now, and use the lower CLR to push their assessments down. The ratio, though, won’t help owners whose property values have soared.

Your tax depends on when you bought

Despite the change in the ratio, tax bills in Allegheny County continue to be driven less by the value of the property than the date of purchase. The wild variances in assessments are evident on the streets of the current and prior county executives.

Fitzgerald arguably benefits to the tune of thousands of dollars per year from his decision not to reassess.

He bought his house in Point Breeze in 1989 for $202,000. Because the county doesn’t regularly reassess, his tax bill has remained static, even as property values have soared.

A next-door neighbor bought a similarly sized house in 2021 for $970,095. That price drew an assessment appeal by the Pittsburgh Public Schools, and a resulting fair market value of $616,000.

The neighbor’s total annual tax bill — county, city and school district — is around $3,000 higher than Fitzgerald’s.

Innamorato could lose out financially under the scenario she proposed during her campaign for executive. She has said she'd like to reassess all properties, while increasing existing tax breaks for homeowners and seniors and adding protections for longtime owner-occupants.

Innamorato bought her row house in Upper Lawrenceville for $71,000 in 2015. On the same side of the same block is a house that’s around 20% larger (though it’s not a row house). Purchased during the Lawrenceville real estate boom, it is subject to a tax bill around five times higher.

Gambino said the current system, with no reassessments and one CLR for the entire county, is unfair because different areas have appreciated at different rates since 2013 — meaning homeowners in low-appreciation markets are subject to the same ratio as those in high-appreciation areas.

The base-year system is “something Robin Hood’s evil twin would condone,” Gambino said. “All this talk about reduction and refunds, these are all symptoms of a sickness called the base-year scheme.”

Plight of boroughs

Seth Abrams feels conflicted. On a personal level, a countywide reassessment would cost him money. He bought his home 13 years ago and said it has appreciated significantly since the last time the county assessed its value.

But Abrams is the borough manager for Munhall, a place that stands to lose a lot of money in pending appeals. Just one appeal, by the Lowe’s hardware store in the Waterfront, has already cost the borough $50,000 in annual revenue, enough to wipe out a cushion he had planned for the 2024 budget.

Now, the possibility of a millage increase weighs on him as more appeals, including some from U.S. Steel, are pending.

“If [U.S. Steel] got something along the lines of what Lowe’s got and they got their assessment cut in half, that’s another $60,000 or $70,000 loss that I’m trying not to factor into things right now,” Abrams said. “That would mean that we would have to dig into the reserves, we would have to look at all of our fees and our taxes.

“People will see increased costs if this trend of losing taxable value continues.”

Despite the implications to his personal tax bill, as a professional, Abrams wants to see a reassessment. 

“I need to look out for the needs of an entire community. In Munhall, I’m looking at 5,000 or 6,000 residences. For me, I’m looking at one.”

Assessed values dropped from 2022-2024 in numerous Mon Valley communities near Munhall, showing Abrams’ problems are shared by his peers in other towns. Many of those municipalities and the adjacent school districts already have some of the county’s highest millage rates, giving them less margin to raise the levy.

Clairton will have to deal with the outcome of 32 parcels under appeals filed by U.S. Steel, which operates the Clairton Coke Works there. Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi told PublicSource in April that the steelmaker accounts for about one-third of its tax base, and the revenue loss from appeals could “be catastrophic for the City of Clairton.”

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s managing editor, and can be reached at

This story was fact-checked by Delaney Rauscher Adams.

The post Property tax appeals erode budgets as assessment burden shifts appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

Greenwood Plan to bring business accelerator Downtown to aid Black enterprises Wed, 31 Jan 2024 10:30:00 +0000 people sit around a table in a large room with glass windows and plants in the background

“We want to remind people of the history that has already existed here ... Black entrepreneurship is not new. Out of necessity, Black entrepreneurship has thrived."

The post Greenwood Plan to bring business accelerator Downtown to aid Black enterprises appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

people sit around a table in a large room with glass windows and plants in the background

This story was originally published by NEXTpittsburgh, a news partner of PublicSource. NEXTpittsburgh features the people, projects and places advancing the region and the innovative and cool things happening here. Sign up to get their free newsletter.

Pittsburgh’s Downtown will soon see an expanded space dedicated to starting and accelerating Black businesses through mentorship and networking.

The Greenwood Plan, a Black-founded and Black-led nonprofit committed to advancing economic justice for Black communities through education, networking and resources, recently acquired the Pitt Building on the corner of Smithfield Street and Boulevard of the Allies through Greenwood Smithfield LLC, its subsidiary company. 

Founded in 2021 by Khamil Bailey and Samantha Black, the Greenwood Plan developed from a one-week Black entrepreneurial conference called Greenwood Week. That program began in 2018 and brought local entrepreneurs together to share experiences and resources.

“People believed that, ‘If someone comes from the same place as me and had similar hurdles, I could also do that thing,’” says Bailey, the executive director. “From that, we decided to expand into year-round programming, and that’s how the nonprofit came to be.”

The Black Business Conference, Greenwood Week, occurs each October. The conference includes networking, performances and classes that fall under five pillars of health: environmental, physical, mental, financial and spiritual. 

“It’s almost our pep rally for the year,” Bailey adds. “Everybody gets riled up about starting a business, running a business and exploring business.”

The Greenwood Plan focuses on intentional resource redirection, economic justice, business growth and sustainment and socioeconomic guidance. The aim is to eliminate barriers for Black entrepreneurs.

In addition to its Greenwood Week conference, the Greenwood Plan hosts industry-specific summits and recently added an arts organizing program for creative entrepreneurs. It also provides $500 mini-grants to Black businesses to alleviate business costs.

It works with the state’s Department of General Services to help Black businesses win state contracts. It also collaborates with the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Bridgeway Capital.

Shannel Lamere first attended a Greenwood Week conference in 2019 and began doing film and photography for Greenwood. She now owns and operates Shannel Lamere Films.

“She has grown with us over the past four years,” Bailey says. “People will give their talent, their treasure and come to us when they need things that we can provide, which a lot of the time is audience.”

Permanent space for Black business acceleration

Greenwood Smithfield LLC purchased the Pitt Building, located on the corner of Smithfield Street and Boulevard of the Allies. (Photo courtesy of the Greenwood Plan)

Bailey received a LinkedIn message shortly after founding the Greenwood Plan in 2021 from the manager of the America’s Club co-working space, formerly in the Pitt Building. The club was looking to bring in more diverse entrepreneurs. After a tour, the Greenwood Plan became a member.

“We found ourselves making coffee, straightening up and tidying the space, and just greeting people when they came in the door,” Bailey says. “So we took a bit of ownership in it.”

In November 2021, the Greenwood Plan took out a lease on the space, renaming it Emerald City Pittsburgh. The 12,000-foot co-working space is dedicated to boosting Black entrepreneurship and wealth. That is when Bailey learned of other vacancies in the building. 

“We thought if we’re going to fill up the vacancy, we probably should just own the building,” she adds.

The effort received $1 million from the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. The space will become an incubation and accelerator space with commercial storefronts, mentorship programs and networking opportunities for Black business owners. 

Russell General Contracting, a Black-owned family business, is leading the consulting for renovating the building.

In addition to Emerald City, the three-story building has a Cricket Wireless store and a mutual aid nonprofit. The third floor, which is currently a gym, is slated to become an event and assembly space.

A rendering of the third-floor event space in the Pitt Building. The space has vaulted ceilings and skylights and is planned to be bookable for events like weddings and performances. (Photo courtesy of the Greenwood Plan)

“It has vaulted ceilings and breathtaking skylights,” Bailey adds. “We always knew this would be the next space for the building because people need to get their eyes on it.”

Third-floor renovations are scheduled to begin in February. 

Pittsburgh has a rich history of Black entrepreneurship. Bailey says that is at the forefront of creating the new space and ensuring that business leaders get the support they need.

“We want to remind people of the history that has already existed here,” Bailey says. “Black entrepreneurship is not new. Out of necessity, Black entrepreneurship has thrived.

“We’re at a point now where it is necessary again for Black entrepreneurship to grow to be able to take care of the communities that exist here.”

Ethan Woodfill is a freelance journalist interested in telling the stories of people doing great things to build community and sustainability.

The post Greenwood Plan to bring business accelerator Downtown to aid Black enterprises appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

After Adda Coffee closure, national board may be asked to read financial tea leaves Tue, 30 Jan 2024 10:30:00 +0000 handwritten writing covers over a printed paper sign on a shop door.

If the Adda case reaches the NLRB, attorney Michael Healey said the critical questions will be: “What are the company's plans? What are their intentions? What are their finances?”

The post After Adda Coffee closure, national board may be asked to read financial tea leaves appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

handwritten writing covers over a printed paper sign on a shop door.

More than two weeks after a local coffee shop chain shuttered its four locations throughout Pittsburgh, the laid-off staff are still making demands of their former boss in a dispute that raises thorny legal questions.

Earlier in the month, 25 workers at Adda Coffee & Tea House learned they would be out of work just hours after announcing plans to unionize to improve their job security.

Owner Sukanta Nag, of Fox Chapel, said in a statement the decision reflected long-accumulating losses. But the employees claim it was nothing more than illegal union busting. Legal experts say the unusual circumstances could raise important labor law questions amid a resurgence of union interest.

Union begins, company ends

On Jan. 11, employees of the local coffee chain announced plans to unionize, claiming  inadequate compensation and unfair scheduling. Soon after, the company announced the immediate closures of all four locations — in Garfield, Shadyside, the North Side and the Cultural District. 

Chris Gratsch, a former barista who helped lead the union effort, said there had been many conversations with management attempting to improve working conditions and wages, but management just kept asking for more time. The employees then made their grievances public through Instagram, writing “we love our jobs, and we deserve a say in how our store is run.” 

Members of the Adda workers unionization effort talk over breakfast on Jan. 22, in Shadyside. From left are former Adda Coffee & Tea House employees Sierra Young, Ryan Rattley, Chris Gratsch and Rachel Saula. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

A day prior, the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1776 filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] seeking union status for 25 Adda employees. 

Adda announced on Instagram that it was closing “solely and entirely based on the financial viability of the business,” adding that it “is probably no surprise to some (or most) of you.”

Gratsch disagrees. “It’s inconceivable to think it’s anything but union busting,” he said, adding that the other employees also did not see this coming.

Nag did not respond to requests for comment.  

“We’re devastated,” Gratsch said, adding that “at the end of the day we really did love our jobs.” He said he is grateful for the community support the union has received, calling it “overwhelming in the best way.”

The former Adda employees held a press conference in Sharpsburg on Jan. 17, in front of Atithi Studios, one of Nag’s properties. Elected officials were in attendance including Lt. Gov. Austin Davis, who said he’s “going to continue to stand with the workers” until Adda provides former employees with proper severance. 

What happens next?

Legal experts say any appeal process will hinge on whether Adda’s closure can be shown to be linked to the union effort.

“If you can prove that a business shut down in response to unionization, that is a violation of the law,” said John Stember, a Pittsburgh labor and employment attorney who typically represents workers.

Chris Gratsch, a former lead barista at Adda Coffee & Tea House and a leader of their union drive, sits for a portrait on Jan. 22, in Shadyside. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Mike Healey, another Pittsburgh labor attorney, said that in his experience, a company response like this is “relatively rare” but not unheard of. 

“The timing is awfully suspicious,” he added.

Next steps for the Adda workers aren’t entirely clear. Gratsch declined to share details while negotiations continue. 

“We are at the bargaining table with Sukanta in regards to the demands we made at the press conference,” he said. Those demands included severance pay, compensation for unused paid time off and the opportunity to retrieve personal items from closed Adda stores, TribLive reported.

If they don’t get what they want, they could ask the NLRB to intervene on their behalf.

When any charges are brought to the NLRB, they will first be investigated to determine their validity. Where legitimate grievances are found, the board will attempt to broker a settlement, and 90% of cases end in an agreement. But if that falters, the NLRB can issue a complaint that triggers a hearing with an NLRB administrative law judge who ultimately decides the outcome of the case – a process that could drag on for months or years.

If the Adda case reaches the NLRB, Healey said the critical questions will be: “What are the company’s plans? What are their intentions? What are their finances?” Timing, money and the nature of the closure will be important as the case moves forward, he added. 

Public records suggest one recent financial hiccup. In December, the state Department of Labor & Industry filed a lien against Adda, alleging that the company owed $1,956 in unemployment compensation fund contributions, plus interest. Court records show the company then promptly paid.

It was lights out during regular business hours on Jan. 12 at the newly shuttered Adda Coffee & Tea House along Western Avenue in Allegheny West.(Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

If the company is still operating in some capacity or is trying to pivot their business, that could be problematic in the eyes of the law, Healey said. The decision will largely depend on Adda’s financial records and if there is substantial proof that there had been plans or indications that they would have to shut down prior to the employees’ decision to unionize, he added. 

The NLRB’s powers include investigating alleged labor law violations, negotiating settlements of disputes, holding hearings before administrative law judges and seeking court orders against violators.

Gratsch hopes that people will not see this story as a cautionary tale for unionization.

 “Organize your workplace, this should be a shining example of why you need it,” he said.

Delaney Rauscher Adams is an editorial intern at PublicSource and can be reached at

This story was fact-checked by Rich Lord.

The post After Adda Coffee closure, national board may be asked to read financial tea leaves appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

Inequitable enrichment: How Black and low-income students are largely left out of Pittsburgh’s gifted program Mon, 29 Jan 2024 10:30:00 +0000 Two young women standing in front of a house.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools Gifted Center is largely white in a mostly Black district. Critics say unfair metrics set the stage for racial skew in advanced classes, other opportunities.

The post Inequitable enrichment: How Black and low-income students are largely left out of Pittsburgh’s gifted program  appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

Two young women standing in front of a house.

Cate Guilfoyle, a senior at Allderdice High School, learned of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ gifted program when she was in second grade at Colfax K-8. Many of her peers attended the district’s Gifted Center at Greenway, once a week, to participate in accelerated hands-on courses. 

Uneven Scales
As PPS contends with a difficult budget season, PublicSource explores the balance of resources and its effects on students’ futures.

“There was a huge stigma around, like, everyone that went there was super smart,” she said. 

Guilfoyle was evaluated and identified as a gifted student a few years later. Like others, she attended the Gifted Center, which she believes offered more resources than Colfax. With that, Guilfoyle said, she also saw immediate disparities in her classroom. 

On the days when she and her classmates bussed off to the Gifted Center, she said, “Greenway would look like all white kids and then all of Colfax would have only African American kids.” 

Cate Guilfoyle, a senior at Allderdice High School, stands for a portrait on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, in Squirrel Hill. Guilfoyle tested into Pittsburgh Public Schools’ gifted program as a second grader at Colfax K-8 and noticed how the majority white gifted programming differed from her more diverse home classroom. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The district’s Gifted and Talented program offers unique opportunities for students who are identified as “high-achieving.” However, students of color are highly underrepresented among students who are identified for the program. 

As the district works through a strategic planning process with a focus on equity, at least some board members say the time is right to rethink approaches to gifted education. 

Of the 18,650 students enrolled in the district, 1,315 were identified as gifted in 2022-23, according to the district’s enrollment dashboard. Of the students identified as gifted, 16% were Black and 66% were white. Black students make up 51% of the district’s student population. 

Schools with a higher share of economically disadvantaged students also had a lower percentage of students identified as gifted. Of all students with a Gifted Individualized Education Plan [GIEP], only 23% were economically disadvantaged, while districtwide, 70% of students are economically disadvantaged.

Statewide, 3.3% of all students were identified as gifted, according to the 2017-18 data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Less than 1% of Black students were identified. Studies have shown that gifted programs do not necessarily improve student reading and math scores. 

PPS spokesperson Ebony Pugh said the district follows state guidelines when evaluating students for gifted education, but did not substantively address questions about racial disparities in the program.

“Grow Your Gifts,” reads a mural alongside the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Gifted Center, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, in Crafton Heights. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

State laws contribute to disparities

State regulations define gifted education as individualized and specially designed instruction, delivered under a GIEP. 

Per state law, a “mentally gifted” student must demonstrate an IQ of 130 or more or

  • Test at a year or more above achievement level 
  • Show a high rate of retention in learning new skills 
  • Demonstrate early skill development 
  • Show expertise in one or more academic areas.

Advocates say, the definition of “gifted” may be a key driver of the inequitable access to the district’s gifted program.

James Fogarty, executive director of A+ Schools, a nonprofit supporting PPS in addressing equity issues, said key measures such as IQ, which is impacted by socioeconomic factors such as poverty and structural racism, skew the pool of gifted students. 

“It seems as if the current system … developed at the state policy level, lends itself towards identifying students as gifted as those who are also not economically disadvantaged,” he said.

It seems as if the current system … developed at the state policy level, lends itself towards identifying students as gifted as those who are also not economically disadvantaged.

James Fogarty

Many students from low-income families are underrepresented and excluded from gifted programs because they do not have opportunities for enrichment and learning experiences outside school in early childhood, said Kristen Seward, associate director of Gifted Education Resource Institute [GERI] at Purdue University.

She said if students don’t have access to enrichment opportunities in early childhood, then they will not test high by the time they get to third grade, when kids are usually tested for gifted education.

A young woman stands outside a high school with columns with a cloudy sky.
Beatrice Kuhn stands for a portrait outside of Allderdice High School, where she is a senior with plans of going into public health, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, in Squirrel Hill. Kuhn was in fourth grade at Colfax when she was identified as a gifted student. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Accelerated learning for the ‘gifted,’ free day for others

All gifted students in PPS – apart from those at Dilworth and Grandview where gifted instruction is offered on-site – go to the Gifted Center at Greenway every week, where they participate in project-based, accelerated courses. 

Beatrice Kuhn was in fourth grade at Colfax when she was identified as a gifted student. Once every week, she would go to the Gifted Center, where she took classes ranging from forensic science to ceramics.

“I took various art classes and those were really fun,” she said. “It was a very different environment.”

Kuhn’s friend, Alina Weise, also got evaluated in fifth grade but was not identified as gifted. She and others stayed at Colfax while their peers went to the Gifted Center. 

“I just felt down about myself. I started to feel like I wasn’t smart enough or wasn’t as high of a level as my peers were, especially my close friends,” she said. 

Alina Weise, a senior at Allderdice High School, sits for a portrait at home with her dog Zoe in Squirrel Hill on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. Weise said she felt down on herself when her friends would leave for the Gifted Center in elementary school and she stayed behind at Colfax K-8. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

On days her classmates went to the Gifted Center, those remaining at Colfax were usually given a “free day,” where they could catch up on any previously assigned work, Weise said. 

PPS did not respond to inquiries about assignments for students not identified as gifted on days their peers are at the Gifted Center.

The main entrance of Colfax K-8 on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Kipp Dawson, a retired teacher from Colfax, taught at the school from 2005 to 2018. She said delivery of instruction for students who stayed behind on gifted days varied at every school and with every principal. 

For a part of her tenure at Colfax, those students were provided an enrichment day where they brought in artists to teach classes such as poetry, writing or painting T-shirts. However, most time was dedicated for students to prepare for standardized tests. 

“That was a day in many cases of dull, rote, uninspiring work,” said Dawson. 

I think we sometimes do ourselves a disservice by creating opportunities to segregate.

Gene walker

Allyce Pinchback-Johnson, a founding member of Black Women for a Better Education, said apart from overidentifying white students as gifted, the district also misidentifies students because of inherent biases and standardized testing. 

“It’s just a very narrow and limited definition of giftedness,” she said. “We already know what the outcomes are going to be, based on just the racial distribution of how students fare on those tests that we know that it’s not a reflection of them as students as much as it’s a reflection of the bias that exists.”

Gene Walker, district board president, said the Gifted Center creates barriers for students by sending some kids there and leaving others behind. “I think we sometimes do ourselves a disservice by creating opportunities to segregate.”

The Gifted-to-AP pipeline

At Allderdice, Guilfoyle noticed the same disparities in her honors and Advanced Placement [AP] classes that she saw between Colfax and the Greenway Center. 

“I feel like Allderdice is very segregated in many ways,” she said. “I walked in my first AP class, and there were no African American students.”

Similar to gifted education, Black students are underrepresented in AP courses. A total of 1,660 students in PPS enrolled in at least one AP class in 2023. Of those, 29% were Black and 54% were white. 

From left, Alina Weise and Cate Guilfoyle, both seniors at Allderdice High School, sit for a portrait at Weise’s home in Squirrel Hill on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. The two met as second graders at Colfax K-8. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Pinchback-Johnson said the overidentification of white students as gifted sets them up for automatic consideration in high school AP and Centers for Advanced Study classes.

“I view it as just a form of segregation,” she said. 

She added that white families use their social capital to get access to the district’s magnet programs.

The district’s arts magnet, CAPA 6-12, has one of the highest rates of students identified as gifted. This year, 31.5% of the student population at CAPA was identified as gifted. Neighborhood schools, such as UPrep Milliones and Westinghouse, have less than 4% of their students identified as gifted.

Advocates seek systemic changes

Nielsen Pereira, director of the Gifted Education Resource Institute [GERI] at Purdue University, said the district could implement models like total school cluster grouping to reduce inequities that might be caused by sending students to a gifted center. The model involves training teachers to identify students and implement gifted education strategies with all students in a school. 

Under the model, every teacher would be able to provide gifted education, and gifted students would be placed alongside other students instead of visiting a separate classroom or a gifted center. 

Fogarty said the district needs to think about fostering inclusivity and creating in-house gifted education supports, such as those at Dilworth and Grandview. 

“Setting kids aside and not providing support services that allow them to be fully inclusive, is problematic, whether it’s for a student with disabilities or a student with academic gifts,” he said.  

Decorations hang in the classroom windows of Colfax K-8 on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Walker said instead of referrals from parents or teachers, the district should implement universal testing to ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to be identified as gifted and eliminate any personal and systemic bias. 

The district rolled out a pilot program in 2018 to screen all second-grade students in six PPS schools for gifted identification. It’s unclear what, if anything, came of that.

Walker said he’s keen to keep the dialogue moving. 

“I think it’s going to take more than policy change,” he said. “It’s going to take attitude change, it’s going to take priority change.”

Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at

This story was fact-checked by Delaney Adams.

The post Inequitable enrichment: How Black and low-income students are largely left out of Pittsburgh’s gifted program  appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

‘I am Ukraine’ highlights accounts of flight and hope Fri, 26 Jan 2024 10:30:00 +0000 Four women posing for a photo in a studio.

Russia’s war on Ukraine sent millions scrambling for safe havens, including Pittsburgh, and shocked people with roots in the Eastern European country. In advance of three I am Ukraine events, four women share their stories.

The post ‘I am Ukraine’ highlights accounts of flight and hope appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

Four women posing for a photo in a studio.

Nearly two years ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. Pittsburghers of Ukrainian descent immediately felt the emotional impact. The war displaced some 11 million Ukrainians, the vast majority of whom remained in Europe, but thousands of whom came to the U.S.

Some found their ways to Pittsburgh.

I am Ukraine is a series of three free events featuring discussions, song, dance, food tasting and video presentations crafted by refugees and other immigrants from the country, plus others with deep roots there, running from Sunday through Feb. 10.

The events stem from a partnership of the nonprofit Sharing Our Story, City of Asylum, St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Jewish Family and Community Services, JCC Center for Lovingkindness and Engagement, and Ukrainian Cultural and Heritage Institute.

Sharing Our Story and four of the storytellers agreed to share their work with PublicSource.

Ukrainian special treasure

A woman in a black shirt is posing for a portrait.
Olha Myroshnychenko, 40, of Whitehall, stands for a portrait on Jan. 23, in the Strip District. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Olha Myroshnychenko, 40, left Ukraine on Feb. 25, 2022, on the second day of the war. From Slovakia, she relocated to the U.S. in February 2023, and lives in Whitehall with her mother and son.

I’m going around my apartment again. What else should I take with me? Of course, the child is the first priority, but I’ve already dressed him and he is waiting near the door. What else? I put my books in the suitcase. I had room only for two books there. I’m taking the icon of Saint Barbara with me, the one who protected me in all my travels. I’m whispering to myself that Barbara will help this time as well.

I’m opening the drawer and seeing an unfinished knitted jacket. My hand is reaching for it by itself. But no, I have no room for it. And if there is no electrical light, how will I possibly be able to knit? I’d better take this pearl bracelet — I could give it to the worst enemies as a bribe at the checkpoint — so that they can let me go. Oh, I should take the gold jewelry! Where is it?

While I’m looking for gold, my eyes fall on the acrylic peonies that we painted together with my son, and the flying fairy, embroidered with a cross and beads. I feel my heart ache, but I’m taking my eyes away from my paintings — now the most important thing is to save our lives and survive. I will draw more. I will embroider more. Later. I promise this to myself. I’m wiping the tears from my eyes and putting the gold jewelry in the suitcase.

Now, after a year and a half, there are two of my books on a table in my new American apartment. Above the table there are daisies (not peonies) painted by acrylics, which we made together with my son already in the states. I keep myself warm in a knitted jacket that I created based on Ukrainian ornaments, and I embroider Christmas decorations with a red and black cross, as my grandmother taught me on long winter evenings in front of a kerosene lamp and by the crackling fire in the stove.

The creativity that I learned from my grandmother helped me to save our lives and relocate. I painted, I embroidered and I created a new book while sobbing over the news about new attacks and countless victims. But I continued painting, embroidering and it helped to find the strength to smile and to build my life.

And I believe that creativity continues to support me in difficult times. This is our Ukrainian trait — and it is the strength of all Ukrainian women, our special treasure that cannot be exchanged for any gold or pearls. A treasure that no one can ever take away.

This trait will last through distances and even through times. Because we are Ukrainians. Because I am Ukrainian!

‘We Don’t Abandon Our Own’

Diana Denysenko, of McCandless, stands for a portrait on Jan. 23, in the Strip District. Her normal life as a working mother in Ukraine was turned on its head as sirens wailed and her daughter, at university in Kharkov, could not be reached by phone. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Diana Denysenko left Ukraine on March 9, 2022 and lives in McCandless with her daughter, son and dog.

My life in Ukraine was normal. Coffee at 7 a.m., kids to school, lovely work, time with the kids and the dog. On Feb. 24, at 5 a.m., the sirens wailed and we knew that the war had started. My son was at home, but my daughter was in university in Kharkov, close to the Russian border. She did not respond to my calls; the cell phone service was turned off. 

I was to learn how God helped me through the hands of other people. A friend going to Kharkov for business asked me for her address. He found my daughter huddled in her pajamas in her dormitory basement. Coming back took 12 hours. His car was shot at; there was no glass left in it. My daughter couldn’t speak for three days; she just stayed in bed and slept. 

On March 4, the Russians came to Enerhodar. The children slept in the hallway, away from the windows. People helped each other, making sure everyone had supplies.

On March 9, the Red Cross set up a Green Corridor for women, children and older people to get to Zaporizhzhya. This time the helping hands were the company bus drivers; 27 of them drove us to safety. The Russians shot at the buses; what was usually a two-hour trip took seven hours.

We had only one bag; I had a son on one hand, a daughter on the other, and our dog tucked under my arm. We stayed in a church and at night, my children cried, “Why did this happen to us? Why? Why?” I couldn’t say anything; I had to let them let it out.

The next step took us to Khmelnitsky. The bus humming. Crying children again. Holding onto my son’s sleeve and my daughter’s pant leg. Zig-zagging across the country. Apples from a random old woman for Ukrainian soldiers. 

Kind, helping hands drove people from Khmelnitsky to the border. There, my Uncle Ivan met us. We stayed in Moldova for four months, waiting to immigrate. Finally, we flew to Istanbul, to New York, to Pittsburgh, where my parents lived. And yes, our dog eventually joined us in America. My children said, “We don’t abandon our own.” 

Today, I have a new normal life in a new place. My son plays top-level soccer. My daughter studies business in college. My dog saw his first deer. I help others who are coming here for a second chance. We have started on our new “normal” life.

My depression cure

A woman in a pink turtleneck posing for a photo.
Anastasiia Vykhrystiuk, of Mt. Lebanon, stands for a portrait on Jan. 23, in the Strip District. Vykhrystyuk now combats her depression through painting. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Anastasiia Vykhrystiuk, 37, left Ukraine on April 26 and lives in Mt. Lebanon with her two daughters.

I want to show the whole world the amazing charm of our country. I do this through my art.

War knocked in the morning. There was a lot of thunder, and rockets were flying. Panic spread everywhere. People buy tickets. Children cry, old people swallow pills. The number of dead constantly grows. Did I have a nightmare? No. This is reality!

Two long months of hesitating and hoping for the best didn’t live up to my hope that it would all end. The alarm sounds again, a rocket is about to hit somewhere. I decided everything and also bought tickets. Thus began my first trip abroad. Alone with two children, I found myself in a completely different world, no money, no knowledge, no acquaintances.

It was very difficult, but I always remembered that I am Ukrainian. I am strong! I am free and able to overcome everything. 

I miss Ukraine very much. I sat at my easel creating art to ease my depression. My art brings the Ukraine that I love back to me. It inspires me. These memories of Ukraine come to me through my art. The natural world — wheat, wolves, the symbols of our villages, the culture of our embroidered clothing, the signs of the country that I love. They help me survive. I am healed through my art and memories of Ukraine.

My art heals my depression. I am a visual artist in oil and acrylic. This painting I created as a symbol of the end of my life as a wife. I bought this house to begin a new life. I left in Ukraine only two chickens and a rooster. In the U.S., I have only an apartment I rent. 

This painting reminds me of the beautiful home I had in Ukraine. Another of my paintings is about a yellow field and a blue sky. This painting contains the colors of Ukraine.

I love my Ukraine, even though I was lonely here. I want to ride into the future. I had to decide whether to stay or to flee. I want to ride the horse to a new life.

The sparkle of my life

A woman in a black dress posing for a portrait.
Kateryna Boiko, of Sewickley, stands for a portrait on Jan. 23, in the Strip District. Boiko, 36, is a musician who was traveling from work away from her family as the war in Ukraine began. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Kateryna Boiko, 36, left Ukraine a month before the war, but had to help extricate her daughter, and now lives in Sewickley with her husband and daughter.

In my life, there was no father, but I rarely felt his absence because my mother had three sisters, my beloved aunts, who raised me.

I remember in our village, under the bright August starry sky, we lit a bonfire. As Aunt Inna sang “Fog Over the Ravine, Fog Through the Valley,” I sang along, gazing at the bonfire, sparkling, and the starry sky! Waves of peace and happiness engulfed me, as if a spark from the fire landed in my heart, igniting a love for music, while another became a guiding star that continues to guide me. This connection to my Ukrainian singing roots with the cosmos continues!

Here I am with other children, about to depart for Spain for an international vocal competition. I gaze at the starry sky, see my star, drawing me into something incredible.

The stage, blinding satellites, my solo! And the little stars here are other children, 2013 August, the same starry sky, the deck of a huge cruise liner. My family calls: “How are you there?” I reply, “Today we’re presenting an international show. Big orchestra, three solo singers — from Cuba, Turkey and me, the Ukrainian.

February 2022, I’m on a Mexican beach with a cocktail, looking at the stars and calculating that I’ve already done over 2,500 world shows.

At night, my husband awakens me: “Kyiv is being bombed!”

I try to call my mom and daughter in Ukraine. They are hiding in a bomb shelter. I have a terrible connection in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. I look at the peaceful sky, each star exploding like a bomb in my heart.

I safely brought my daughter and mom from Ukraine to Krakow.

At a railway station I see the eyes of my daughter and mom, tired from constant relocations, who’ve been waiting for a train leading nowhere. They bring our one lonely suitcase, with everything we once owned. Somewhere at the bottom is my music.

“God, give me a sign.”

Erica, who sponsored us and helped us get to America, wrote, ” We chose your family because we have so much in common; my three daughters are musicians, too. I bought you tickets to Pittsburgh.”

Unpacking my suitcase, at the bottom, I found a badge with my smiling face from the ship, signed, “Kateryna, musician, Ukraine.” I burst into tears!

Sitting by Erica’s family bonfire, I see the same sparkles as they were in my childhood.

I want to play the guitar, the one my father gave me, with rusty strings and a bent soundboard, my only remaining connection with him.

I would love to take it but it’s back in Ukraine, and sing “Fog Over the Ravine, Fog Through the Valley” for my daughter, just like Aunt Inna used to sing for me.

Click here to register for the free I am Ukraine events.

Sharing Our Story bridges cultural divides between refugees and their Pittsburgh community members by using storytelling to support understanding at the personal and wider community level, creating mutual understanding, and empathy while providing opportunities for self-expression, technical training and engagement. Sharing Our Story welcomes neighbors into deeper understandings of each other and acknowledgement of shared experiences. Sharing Our Story can be reached at

The post ‘I am Ukraine’ highlights accounts of flight and hope appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

Gainey, Innamorato back Chatham faculty union push at East End card-signing Fri, 26 Jan 2024 01:08:20 +0000 A group of people standing around a table a box.

“This is a really exciting night for us. We've been working up to this point for many months now ... We've been working really hard with our faculty colleagues to make sure that everybody feels like they are a part of what we're doing.”

The post Gainey, Innamorato back Chatham faculty union push at East End card-signing appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

A group of people standing around a table a box.

Local leaders joined roughly 45 Chatham University faculty on Thursday evening to formally advance a union organizing effort that began this fall after the university made a series of cuts to trim a multimillion-dollar deficit.

The faculty met at Larimer’s East End Brewing Company to sign cards declaring their intent to unionize. If at least 30% of the university’s roughly 135 full-time faculty sign them, the National Labor Relations Board will hold an election. Chatham also has the option to voluntarily recognize a union, without an election, if there’s evidence that a majority of faculty want representation. 

About half of the full-time faculty had signed cards by Friday morning, an organizer told PublicSource. Roughly a third of the faculty were present at Thursday’s event.  

The event – graced by Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato – was one step forward in what could be a lengthy process. If successful, the faculty will be a local of AFT Pennsylvania.

“This is a really exciting night for us. We’ve been working up to this point for many months now,” said Jessie Ramey, an associate professor and organizer with Chatham Faculty United. “We’ve been working really hard with our faculty colleagues to make sure that everybody feels like they are a part of what we’re doing.”

A person signing a form at a table with buttons.
Jill Riddell, an assistant professor of environmental science, signs her union card form as Chatham University faculty members hold a car signing event on Jan. 25, at East End Brewing in Larimer. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The event was organized by Chatham Faculty United, which is seeking to achieve unionization for the full-time faculty. The group believes that unionization will allow faculty to have greater influence in university governance; protect their pay and benefits; and benefit from a formalized grievance process. 

This summer, Chatham reduced faculty benefits and cut some salaries to trim its deficit, which the university has said stands at $6 million. Professors told PublicSource in November that the university’s response to the deficit renewed a previously simmering interest in unionizing and “really underscored how powerless we are.” 

Much of the organizers’ work so far has focused on connecting with faculty and explaining the benefits they believe a union could bring. Jennie Sweet-Cushman, an associate professor and organizer said the group will visit Chatham’s three campuses after Thursday to ensure all interested faculty can sign cards. The organizers will contact the National Labor Relations Board soon, she added. 

“We’re hoping to have a really strong showing with the cards so that we can make that case for voluntary recognition,” Sweet-Cushman said. “We would really love it if that happened. Nobody wants this to be a contentious thing. Nobody feels like the university should be spending money trying to fight it.”

Bill Campbell, a spokesperson for the university, did not provide comment on the union effort to PublicSource by press time, and did not say whether the university would voluntarily recognize a union. 

A group of people in a room talking to each other.
Sara Innamorato, Allegheny County executive, talks to people during a union card campaign event for Chatham University faculty members event on Jan. 25, at East End Brewing in Larimer. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Gainey said in an interview during the event that his administration would like to write a letter to the university’s Board of Trustees stating that unionization is “for the best interests of not only the school but the city.”

“I’ve said from day one, if you want to make the quality of your workplace better, it’s important that you’re able to collectively bargain,” the mayor said. “A lot of times what happens is, we don’t listen to our frontline employees. When you have a union, you don’t have a choice.”

Innamorato also voiced support for the nascent union effort. “We need to make sure that the people who make institutions like Chatham great are taken care of,” she said. Councilor Erika Strassburger, who represents Squirrel Hill where Chatham is located, also attended.

The union effort, if it advances, may be more challenging for the faculty than for workers in other industries. A decades-old decision from the U.S. Supreme Court determined that full-time faculty members at the private Yeshiva University were managerial employees; the case has made unionization very difficult for similar faculty at private universities.

Some of the Chatham University faculty members on the organizing committee to unionize stand for a portrait along Fifth Avenue by the school, Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Squirrel Hill.
Some of the Chatham University faculty members on the organizing committee to unionize stand for a portrait along Fifth Avenue by the school on Nov. 20, in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

A more recent ruling from the National Labor Relations Board, however, offered standards for determining whether faculty are managerial employees. A local victory that followed this ruling bodes well for the group. Full-time faculty at the private Point Park University reached their first tentative agreement on a union contract in 2017. 

Sweet-Cushman said the organizers have met with labor attorneys and feel strongly that they would not be considered managerial employees under the ruling. 

The organizers are optimistic that their effort will be successful. But regardless of the outcome, they’re committed to serving as “a forum where faculty can build community,” Sweet-Cushman said. 

“Our work doesn’t end,” she said. “We’re eager to keep building those bonds and being supportive for our colleagues.” 

This story was updated on Jan. 26 at 9:55 a.m. to reflect a final count of the cards signed during the event.

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at

The post Gainey, Innamorato back Chatham faculty union push at East End card-signing appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

Small housing authority files far more evictions than larger Pittsburgh-area agencies Thu, 25 Jan 2024 10:30:00 +0000 A baby in a diaper puts its fist through a set of blinds to look outside as strips of light fall on its face.

“Many tenants appear to be gaming the system,” said the solicitor for the McKeesport Housing Authority, “as the number of tenants filing late appeals and other delay-type motions to the Court of Common Pleas have increased dramatically in the past two years.” Local housing advocates, though, urge inexpensive mediation before court filings.

The post Small housing authority files far more evictions than larger Pittsburgh-area agencies appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

A baby in a diaper puts its fist through a set of blinds to look outside as strips of light fall on its face.

On a Tuesday afternoon in December, around a dozen public housing tenants facing eviction filled a waiting room in McKeesport, where Magisterial District Judge Eugene Riazzi asked each if they could pay their delinquent rent. 

If so, the tenant agreed to pay the amount owed, plus court costs of more than $150. Unless they pledged to pay, Riazzi ruled in favor of the McKeesport Housing Authority, starting a process that can lead to the tenant’s removal within weeks. Tenants who said they couldn’t pay were referred to a county human services worker who waited in the lobby to help them apply for rental assistance

A similar scene plays out on many Tuesdays in McKeesport. 

Magisterial District Judge Eugene Riazzi is seen through a series of doors as he hears a landlord/tenant case in his courtroom. "THIS OFFICE HAS 24-HOUR CAMERA SURVEILLANCE" reads a sign on the wall beside the court service window. A container of hand sanitizer sits amongst brochures for related court information on a ledge.
Magisterial District Judge Eugene Riazzi hears a landlord/tenant case in his courtroom on Jan. 16, in McKeesport. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Since the end of the pandemic-era moratorium on evictions in 2021, all three housing authorities serving Allegheny County have filed numerous eviction cases, but none has done so with the same vigor and frequency as the McKeesport Housing Authority [MHA]. These legal actions come as county human service officials and advocates cement a rental assistance network created through pandemic-era federal funding that’s helping tenants of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh and the Allegheny County Housing Authority. 

The McKeesport authority, by far the smallest of the three agencies with the fewest number of housing units, has filed 562 landlord/tenant cases against its tenants from the start of 2021 through early December. Pandemic-driven curbs on most evictions ended in 2021.

The Allegheny County Housing Authority [ACHA] filed 131 cases and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] filed 263 in that same time period, according to court data gathered by Anne Wright of Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, who tracks eviction cases.  

Wright noted that tracking eviction filings for Pittsburgh’s housing authority can be difficult because the organization often uses various names when filing evictions against tenants. Eviction filings also do not necessarily correlate with actual evictions, as some tenants are able to gather the money and stay after a filing.

McKeesport Housing Authority solicitor Jim Creenan wrote in response to questions that the three housing authorities are structurally different. The MHA, he said, has limited resources, so it needs a consistent stream of federally required rent from tenants. He also noted that the authority has a “substantial waiting list” of families wanting to move into its communities.

Snow lines the hillside around Crawford Village Housing Complex as people walk through the parking lot and along a shoveled path. Signs for a bus stop and a pole holding security cameras are in the foreground. In the distance, the blue hills of neighboring Duquesne.
The Crawford Village Housing Complex, in McKeesport. Crawford Village has the highest concentration of units under McKeesport Housing Authority oversight, with 358 apartments. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Pittsburgh’s and Allegheny County’s housing authorities also have waiting lists for the units they manage.

County human service officials said that the Pittsburgh and county housing authorities are using partners including Just Mediation Pittsburgh to prevent evictions, while MHA has largely declined to use these resources. 

“Prior to the pandemic, the largest filers of evictions were the housing authorities, and at least two of the three housing authorities here are using mediation as a first step to avoid evictions. So that drastically reduced the number of filings we’ve seen in the county,” said Chuck Keenan, an administrator of the Office of Community Services within the Allegheny County Department of Human Services [ACDHS].

Keenan said the MHA used the county’s eviction prevention services at the beginning of 2023 to mediate around 20 tenant cases. Keenan said the housing authority has since stopped using mediation and returned to filing evictions against their tenants. 

A woman talks on the phone at her desk with a laptop.
Jala Rucker, education outreach manager with Rent Help Pgh, tries to coordinate help for a person facing eviction at the Housing Stabilization Center, Jan. 18, in downtown Pittsburgh. The center’s staff helps renters find legal avenues and other means of support to stay in their homes in the face of eviction. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“They’re not really using mediation as much as we would hope,” he said. “We would encourage all landlords to use mediation as an alternative to filing — including the housing authorities.” 

McKeesport’s Creenan said the authority “has entered payment plans and we have facilitated hundreds of applications for each stage of the COVID-era rental assistance.” In most cases, those tenants continued to rack up delinquencies, he said.

He added that each mediation requires hours of staff time and the resulting delays in payment did not “align with our limited resources and contributed to the arrears” owed the authority.

Fewest units, most landlord/tenant cases

Ziara Wright, a mother of two in McKeesport who is facing eviction and owes several months of rent, said she was still making partial rent payments last year before the housing authority took her to court. She fell behind in part because of a paperwork problem that led to her losing access to her food stamps, forcing her to spend more money to feed her family. 

After a ruling against her and a judgment of $2,417, she filed an appeal. The eviction process and filing for an appeal has been stressful, she said.

“You got to go through that while you’re juggling everything else. You got to pay your bills out there. You got to go to work every day,” she said. 

Speaking broadly, Creenan said that with all of the protections afforded to tenants — including appeal rights and rental assistance — only about 20% of the first-time evictions the authority files against tenants lead to a judge’s order for possession, entitling the authority to remove the tenant.

"Discover McKeesport" reads a red, white, and blue sign above the industrial city's downtown district. A blue bridge crosses the Monongahela River in the background. Snow sits on the town roofs and streets.
Snow coats downtown McKeesport Jan. 16. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“Many tenants appear to be gaming the system,” he said, “as the number of tenants filing late appeals and other delay-type motions to the Court of Common Pleas have increased dramatically in the past two years.”   

Local housing advocates urge inexpensive mediation before court filings. Landlord/tenant complaints result in fees and legal stains that can hurt the tenant’s ability to find rental housing in the future. 

The McKeesport Housing Authority has 1,021 housing units, and last year it filed a landlord/tenant case for roughly 1 out of every 4 of its housing units. In contrast, the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh brought cases against around 4.6% of its tenants, or about 1 in 20. The county’s housing authority, with 3,839 units, filed cases against 2.6% of its tenants last year. 

MHA’s Executive Director Steve Bucklew declined to discuss its eviction policies with PublicSource and WESA, citing unspecified, ongoing litigation. He referred reporters to a published report by the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association, citing ongoing rent collection difficulties for housing authorities. 

In an interview with PublicSource in 2022, with pandemic-era rental aid expiring, Bucklew said too many tenants were delinquent in their rent. 

“We’ve never experienced delinquencies like this,” he said at the time. “There’s groups trying to delay evictions, but I feel that the only way the message will be communicated to tenants that they have to pay rent is by filing evictions.”

"OFFICIAL NOTICE" reads the black ink of an eviction notice taped to a white front door with yellow tape in McKeesport. A hand-written date, court phone number, and address is added in marker. "IF YOU ATTEMPT TO ENTER THESE PREMISES, YOU WILL BE CHARGED WITH "CRIMINALL TRESPASS" reads the bottom of the page in all-capital letters in front of a law enforcement seal.
An eviction notice hangs on the door of one of McKeesport Housing Authority’s Crawford Village apartments on Jan. 16, in McKeesport. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Pittsburgh and Allegheny leaning against eviction

The county Department of Human Services has been working with ACTION-Housing, Rent Help PGH and Just Mediation, among others, to divert landlord/tenant disputes to mediation, rather than court.

The county and those agencies have learned a lot since 2021, when pandemic-driven rental assistance started, said Keenan. He said the county in 2023 provided rental assistance to more than 1,100 households, totaling upward of $14 million, whereas pre-pandemic spending was $2 million to $3 million a year.

Pittsburgh and Allegheny County’s housing authorities try to avoid court.  

London Reese-Scaife, a housing support clerk, points towards her computer as she holds paperwork while talking with a person facing eviction at the Housing Stabilization Center, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, in downtown Pittsburgh. Reese-Scaife wears a beanie and sweatshirt, the center walls are blue. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
London Reese-Scaife, a housing support clerk, talks with a person facing eviction at the Housing Stabilization Center on Jan. 18, in downtown Pittsburgh. The center’s staff help renters access mediation, legal processes and other assistance to stay in their homes in the face of eviction. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“Eviction prevention has become a standard operating procedure for the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh,” said Anthony Ceoffe, senior director of asset management for HACP.

Ceoffe said HACP worked with Just Mediation Pittsburgh and Rent Help Pittsburgh to help mediate cases with its tenants who are facing problems paying their rent. As a result, he said, the authority didn’t evict any tenants in 2023 because of nonpayment of rent. (Some evictions did take place for issues including safety violations, he said.) 

Ceoffe said the authority also has used a partnership with a third party to connect its tenants to budgeting classes, financial literacy and ongoing case management.

A mother's hand rests on her baby's back as she holds it in a white robe. The baby puts its fingers in its mouth.
A mother who faced potential eviction from her McKeesport Housing Authority apartment holds one of her children for a photo on Jan. 16, at their McKeesport apartment. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“So just because somebody has received rental assistance, that does not mean that the eviction prevention coordinators are done with them,” Ceoffe said. 

Landlords and tenants in mediation have access to available rental assistance — so landlords are still able to eventually get the funds owed to them. 

HACP officials said the book “Evicted,” work by local foundations and advocates, and lessons from the pandemic have contributed to a shift away from eviction filings.

“We are in the business of providing housing,” said Michelle Sandidge, chief community affairs officer for HACP. “To evict a bunch of people just … adds to the homeless situation. That is not something that we’re trying to do.” 

Rich Stephenson, chief operating officer for the Allegheny County Housing Authority, said the agency has invested money and time in preventing evictions through mediation and financial literacy classes for tenants.

“We try to identify the problem,” Stephenson said, “because if someone’s behind in their rent, there’s usually an underlying problem.”

Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.

Kate Giammarise is a reporter at 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR News Station, covering housing and social services.

This story was fact-checked by Rich Lord.

The post Small housing authority files far more evictions than larger Pittsburgh-area agencies appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

AI in Pittsburgh-area schools: How are districts handling this powerful new tool? Wed, 24 Jan 2024 10:30:00 +0000 A child using a computer tablet.

Cheating is always a risk. But students need to understand the tools of the era in which they live and will one day work, educators say.

The post AI in Pittsburgh-area schools: How are districts handling this powerful new tool? appeared first on PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit to read more.

A child using a computer tablet.

This story was originally published by, a media partner of PublicSource. Kidsburgh is an online resource for families that highlights stories about the people, organizations and events making Pittsburgh a better place to raise all kids. Sign up for Kidsburgh’s free e-newsletter.

At Belle Vernon Area School District, students in Daneen Watson’s Spanish 1 class use the words and phrases they’re learning to correct paragraphs written in the language they’re trying to master. Working in groups, they comb through Spanish sentences and find errors, discussing what they find and how best to rewrite it.

Students have used this method to learn a foreign language for generations. But something decidedly 21st-century is happening in Watson’s classroom: These paragraphs were written not by a human, but by the artificial intelligence system ChatGPT.

At New Kensington-Arnold School District, administrators and teachers observed a second grade lesson in reading comprehension in which teachers helped the class input their own text and artwork using ChatGPT and starryai. The ideas they developed, channeled through the quickly evolving tools of AI, allowed the students to produce a book they titled, “Miss Fabulous Loves Her Coffee,” about the day in the life of their teacher.

As OpenAI’s ChatGPT (which stands for Chat Generative Pretrained Transformer), Google’s Bard and other educational AI platforms become mainstream student tools, local educators navigate the waters of rapidly changing technologies each day.

Are there worries about students outsourcing their thinking and creating to a synthetic brain? Or does AI open new doors to student-driven creativity? How do school districts and individual teachers decide which tools to use and how their students are allowed to use them?

“It’s huge, and it’s very hard to wrap the mind around how many different ways this finds a place within our school environment,” says Tim Hammill, director of curriculum services for the Westmoreland County Intermediate Unit [WIU].

Through shared information and seminars from local experts, district leaders in Hammill’s network are working to understand and learn more about the pros, cons and appropriateness of educational AI.

Staying a step ahead – AI teacher training

Schools can’t simply opt out of interaction with AI, because the kids they teach have already begun accessing it. For example, Hammill says, students have figured out that they can use AI to do the standard homework assignment.

“That’s what drives the need for teachers to understand how their instruction needs to change and their assignments need to change,” he says. “We don’t have the option to turn it off and make it go away.”

At WIU training sessions, teachers and administrators learn how to create assignments that leverage AI’s capabilities in ways that teach. This might mean checking the accuracy of a ChatGPT-produced essay on Abraham Lincoln based on what a student has already learned about his life. Or it might mean giving a prewritten passage about Lincoln to students and asking them to rewrite it in the first person, as though they were Lincoln.

“We still need to put those critical skills and concepts that the kids need to learn in front of them; the system is only a part of the equation,” said Rebecca Henderson, curriculum services supervisor of the WIU.

At a recent district training event at New Kensington-Arnold School District, approximately 100 teachers were introduced to lesson-producing generative AI tools. They learned to use ChatGPT to create assessments. And using text-to-voice generating platform Uberduck and other history-focused programs, they discovered how to apply the sound of famous voices to quotes and even hold conversations — complete with AI-emulated responses — with virtual versions of historical leaders.

New Ken-Arnold’s superintendent Dr. Chris Sefcheck knows there are those who may feel students should only learn by taking pen to paper or using computers in the ways that we have for a generation. But he sees opportunity for students to build critical thinking and problem solving skills through these new tools.

“The biggest piece is that artificial intelligence has to be paired with human intellect,” Sefcheck says. “You have to be able to not only know how to use AI, but know how to use your brain for the critical thinking and problem solving that AI doesn’t do for you.”

At Burrell School District, middle school learning coach Courtney Barbiaux enthusiastically pursues AI training — then passes her knowledge on to teachers. She recently gave a presentation on educational platforms including MagicSchool, a free resource that creates lessons, generates questions, produces classroom stations and more on just about any topic.

Supporting classroom lessons in creative ways 

Although AI isn’t written into daily lessons, there are teachers in the WIU using AI to help with tutoring or offer guidance to improve students’ writing and math skills — all under teacher supervision.

In Burrell’s eighth grade classrooms, Barbiaux has introduced the concept of machine learning and how to appropriately use AI in ways similar to how students already use Google to do research.

“We talked about how you could use ChatGPT to search more information, but you’re not copying and pasting,” she says.

Meanwhile, in Burrell’s sixth grade reading classes, students summarize passages generated by ChatGPT at various skill levels. And though it’s not part of daily instruction, Burrell’s technology integration coach Melinda Kulick says the district is exploring AI as a personalized learning tool to increase student engagement.

One possible example, she says: “Taking things that are of interest to students, putting them into ChatGPT and asking for a lesson on fractions for a student who loves soccer.”

Watson, of Belle Vernon, learned about ChatGPT at a conference last summer and continues to increase her proficiency in other platforms like MagicSchool and Canva Magic Design. Once other teachers in her department are on board, she hopes to introduce her students to AI concepts in addition to the AI-generated lessons she currently uses.

“I have seen an increase in scores, and the students do love using AI,” she says, “even though I haven’t explicitly told them what it is.”

At Franklin Regional, students use the math platform ALEKS, which now includes an AI component that assigns assessments and evaluates next levels of instruction by tracking student learning and performance patterns.

Superintendent Gennaro Piraino says he’s mindful of kids – including his own, who are in the district – spending “hours in front of the computer.” But he sees value of programs like ALEKS.

“It has individual prescriptive instruction or remediation when you need it,” Piraino says. “It gets as challenging as the student can handle based upon the response.”

Groundbreaking tool or temptation to cheat?

Rules and policies regarding AI fall under the umbrella of academic integrity. But this is all so new and rapidly evolving. So, Piraino says, “I think people have different perspectives on it.”

He believes educators have the responsibility to understand their students’ needs while teaching ethical uses of AI. At Franklin Regional, some teachers are putting assignments through GPT Zero, a detector that can tell the likelihood or the percentage of a document produced through AI.

Teachers need to be in the business of verifying information, Henderson says. And if a student’s response is broader than what the assignment asks, that has to trigger a warning bell: Did the student really go above and beyond because they are that passionate about this topic? Or because the system went above and beyond?

Cheating is always a risk. But students need to understand the tools of the era in which they live and will one day work.

Students are “going to go out into the world and compete against people who are using it effectively and using it well — and sometimes, using it unethically,” Piraino says. “If we don’t utilize this opportunity in an environment where we know it’s safe, then we put them at a disadvantage.”

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