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Green Industry Hub Rises From Rust Belt Ruins

May 12, 2008 at 6:45 PM EST
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Paul Solman reports on innovators who are making the Pittsburgh region an eco-showcase of the benefits of going green and bringing new hope to the economically depressed Rust Belt region.
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PAUL SOLMAN, NewsHour Economics Correspondent: Here’s a question that may never have occurred to you: Can a region of the Rust Belt become an eco-showcase, a model that could be exported around the country, even globally?

Can going green, that is, become a new American way to prosper, even confer a competitive edge in the global economy?

Consider an extreme case of decline. Just eight miles east of Pittsburgh, the once thriving steel citadel of Braddock, home to the very first Carnegie steel mill, the very first Carnegie library.

At its height in the 1950s and ’60s, Braddock’s downtown was bustling with businesses, a town with visitors from everywhere, and more than 20,000 local inhabitants. How many today?

JOHN FETTERMAN, Mayor, Braddock, Pennsylvania: Around 2,800. It’s probably the single most dramatic decline of a town that I’m aware of in this country.

PAUL SOLMAN: Mayor John Fetterman’s vision is to turn things around with a new competitive strategy for the global age: going green for health and profit.

Fetterman, from York, Pennsylvania, came here in 2001 with a Harvard degree in public policy and an instinct for sympathy. He found a population so desperate they were killing each other for pizza money. The dates of each violent death in town since his election in 2005 are etched in memoriam.

On the other hand…

JOHN FETTERMAN: This is the zip code here.

PAUL SOLMAN: 15104?

JOHN FETTERMAN: 15104, which, again, really just, again, for me emphasizes the level of commitment that I have for the community.

PAUL SOLMAN: Fetterman lives in an old warehouse, has added a penthouse of shipping containers. To Mayor John, as he’s now known, the near-ghost town is an eco-experiment in Rust Belt renewal.

JOHN FETTERMAN: The attraction I think is the overall malignant beauty of Braddock and the history involved. And what’s left, I think, is a community that has to reinvent itself.

'Locavores' of the future

PAUL SOLMAN: Reinvent itself environmentally. For starters, Mayor John wants to turn this 130-acre brown field into a site for eco-friendly businesses: biodiesel, wind, urban farming, the once-blazing Carrie Furnace itself into a museum.

Development consultant Chuck Starrett says they're even recruiting the local plumber.

CHARLES STARRETT, Economic Development Consultant: What he's been doing is been collecting rainwater for people so that they can recycle their rainwater.

PAUL SOLMAN: In short, the key to revival in blackened Braddock is to lure firms that are gung-ho green. And the luring has begun. Within coughing distance of the first Carnegie mill, 1875, an urban farm has put down organic roots.

Strawberries?

JEFF JAEGER, Farmer: We've got new strawberries. This year, we've got some spinach from last year.

PAUL SOLMAN: The idea is to think very globally about pesticides, for instance, or the greenhouse effect, then act very locally. Jeff Jaeger farms this plot day to day.

JEFF JAEGER: There's a greening movement taking place. Again, this is a really important part of it. And it's a microcosm of what's going on in many other parts of the world.

PAUL SOLMAN: Urban gardening for local consumption that saves the energy it takes to move food from one part of the world to another. In fact, a word of the year for 2007 was "locavore," someone who eats food grown within a 100 miles.

Miriam Manion oversees Braddock Farms.

MIRIAM MANION, Executive Director, Grow Pittsburgh: The people really value the fact that they're eating chemically free, locally grown produce, so we can demand a higher price.

PAUL SOLMAN: So there's an organic premium, and then there's a locavore premium?

MIRIAM MANION: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

PAUL SOLMAN: Really?

MIRIAM MANION: And, in fact, I think locavore may be more important than the organic.

Locally grown oil

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, just down the main drag is another local business. Fossil Free Fuel came to town a year ago. They retrofit diesel cars and trucks to run on vegetable oil, carbon neutral, since you grow new plants to replace the old ones, whose oil you burn.

Is that the oil there?

This oil was destined to be dumped. Instead, these guys rounded it up locally and sell it for $1 less than you pay at the pump.

So that's French fries...

DAVE ROSENSTRAUS, Fossil Free Fuel: French fries, chicken...

PAUL SOLMAN: How's business? Growing like, well, greased lightning.

Indeed, Dave Rosenstraus from New Jersey and his intern from elsewhere in Pennsylvania moved here because of the mayor and his view of the town through green-colored glasses.

DAVE ROSENSTRAUS: You need to come to Braddock with the idea that you will be giving something and, in turn, have a place for that creation to be made.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, no disrespect meant, but is Braddock then mainly a magnet for recyclers and vegans? Mickey Bolt from the Steelworkers Union thought so at first. He's since had a conversion experience.

MICKEY BOLT, United Steelworkers: I started to realize that these green jobs are actually blue jobs, that they may need welders, they need pipe-fitters, they need electricians. We need these things to do, whether we're building giant windmills, we need the electricians, we need the welders to weld these things all together.

Old industry home to green business

PAUL SOLMAN: Braddock is a small town looking for small solutions.

Pittsburgh, however, once had nearly a million people. It's now left with some 300,000 and empty lots where they once lived.

Somebody told me there were 14,000 empty lots in Pittsburgh.

ANDREW BUTCHER, GTECH Founder: As of a year-and-a-half ago, there was officially 14,102. That's close to 4,000 to 5,000 acres of vacant land in the city proper.

PAUL SOLMAN: In Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood, Andrew Butcher is leading another eco-initiative: to salvage the inner city and maybe sell that expertise someday.

ANDREW BUTCHER: Let's just get a load of dirt and head over to the other site.

PAUL SOLMAN: A low-tech start-up with a high-tech name, GTECH -- Growth Through Energy and Community Health -- is creating a green job corps to reclaim vacant lots.

And they're not just tidying up. They're planting fuel -- switchgrass, canola, and sunflowers to make biodiesel -- while providing on-the-job training.

ANDREW BUTCHER: GTECH's premise is that vacant land is a mechanism to extend all of the opportunity from the burgeoning green economy into the most distressed and marginalized communities.

PAUL SOLMAN: Do you feel there's a purpose to it besides making $7.50 an hour or whatever?

GTECH EMPLOYEE: Yes, There's a purpose to it. You know, lower our dependence on foreign, you know, foreign fossil fuels and stuff, help out the economy, and help out the Earth.

PAUL SOLMAN: And no spur to food prices, since this is barren land on which biofuel crops will now absorb CO-2, even toxins in the ground.

Biofuels activist Nathaniel Doyno plans to sell those crops to revive relics of industrial Pittsburgh, like United Oil making industrial lubricants for the steel industry.

NATHANIEL DOYNO, Executive Director, Steel City Biofuels: United Oil is a 100-year-old, third-generation, family-owned company.

PAUL SOLMAN: With less and less industry to lubricate, United Oil was about to slip away, until Doyno persuaded them to refine and sell biofuel that can run on any diesel engine.

CHARLES CROSS, United Oil: It is keeping companies like ours alive.

PAUL SOLMAN: Charles Cross runs United Oil.

CHARLES CROSS: For our industrial lubricants business, we probably only use a third of the tanks here, versus the biodiesel, we're pretty close to maximizing our tankage. And if things continue to grow, we'll be able to expand not only this facility, but possibly an additional facility in the future in the area.

PAUL SOLMAN: The idea is to use GTECH's urban crops to make the fuel, all sold locally.

NATHANIEL DOYNO: That is the end game. It's to be able to produce oil seeds locally, use them here locally, and then burn them here locally in vehicles.

Bringing consumption close to home

PAUL SOLMAN: So at the risk of becoming a broken CD, think global, act, well, sometimes more locally than you might imagine.

NATHANIEL DOYNO: I think the real future for biofuels is looking at waste streams, how to make sure that we're not competing for food crops and land use.

We're looking at skimming all the oils that come through the sewer system, right, everything from the salad dressing that gets washed off the plates at a restaurant to oils that we excrete just in the course of our bodily functions.

PAUL SOLMAN: You mean poop?

NATHANIEL DOYNO: I do, yes, humanure.

PAUL SOLMAN: Humanure?

NATHANIEL DOYNO: Humanure.

PAUL SOLMAN: Humanure.

In the end, Nathaniel Doyno, Andrew Butcher, John Fetterman are examples of what a declining American area like the Pittsburgh region is banking on these days, not natural resources, but ingenious entrepreneurial Americans recycling what was built with American ingenuity and industry long ago.

JOHN FETTERMAN: I want to get to a point some day where the term Rust Belt kind of loses any of its pejorative connotations and it's seen as an area of opportunity.

PAUL SOLMAN: There are plenty of opportunities for green around here, and also more than enough problems, we should add, to keep the future dark.

But as the optimistic mayor says...

JOHN FETTERMAN: The greenest building is the one that's already there.

PAUL SOLMAN: One last global insight, with local implications that could be profound, even profitable.