In 1969, the Smog and Pollution Group, or GASP, was formed in Pittsburgh to tackle the city’s infamous sooty air. Since then, the organization has worked on air pollution issues, from idling school buses and wood stoves to persistent emissions from industrial plants like US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works.
This fall, GASP appointed a new CEO, Patrick Campbell, replacing longtime CEO Rachel Filippini. Campbell grew up in western Pennsylvania and left the area to attend Wake Forest University School of Theology in North Carolina. Now he’s back and Kara Holsopple of the Allegheny Front has told him about his new role and the future of this pillar of clean air defense in the region.
Kara Holsopple: How did you become interested in the environment and work on environmental issues?
Campbell: After my master’s degree in divinity, I pastored a United Church of Christ congregation in Hickory, North Carolina. I stayed there for a little less than seven years. There were a few really interesting things about this community. They used to do advocacy, like being very concerned about developing pantries and protecting the most vulnerable people from economic changes in the region.
Interestingly, this congregation purchased the land to build the actual church building, on a small piece of land that was part of a farmer’s field. It was only about 10 acres of land, but since then it had been wooded and turned back to grass, aside from the actual church footprint.
So as I chatted with the church board, we became increasingly interested in how we could better use the land and be better stewards of the land. We have created raised beds, in particular to interest the children and young people of the congregation in the environment.
It all grew out of my interests. I was fortunate that my parents really intended to make sure that my siblings and I spent time outdoors. We were nourished with a great love of being outside so I brought this with me.
Then in theological school you put theological language around that, you know, about being better stewards of the environment and the world that human beings are an inextricable piece.
Kara Holsopple: You worked at another environmental nonprofit in southwestern Pennsylvania before you joined GASP – Protect PT, which stands for Penn-Trafford, in Westmoreland County. What were you doing there?
Patrick Campbell: I was the project and outreach coordinator, so my role was both administrative, as well as working with community members and our volunteers around our various campaigns. Protect PT is an environmental non-profit organization that strives to educate, empower and assist residents facing unconventional oil and gas development in their neighborhoods.
I did a lot of things like grant writing and internship management, but I was also able to work with the environmental scientists at Protect PT, working on setting up noise and noise studies. different things like that around the potential development of well sites. I got to speak with community members and hear how these well sites and fracking sites impacted their daily lives.
Holsopple: What did you learn there that you bring to this new role?
Campbell: I was very lucky to be able to work there. I learned things like zoning ordinances. I learned to navigate the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s unconventional oil and gas program. I learned to analyze permits for well sites.
All of these kinds of things are not always 100 percent transferable to GASP. However, this is starting to give you a language and a foundation to be able to develop these skills as they are particularly related to air quality, of which GASP is a regional leader.
Holsopple: I know you are settling into your role, but what are some of your priorities for the organization?
Campbell: My predecessor, Rachel Filippini, and the GASP Board of Directors really did an amazing job digging and exploring what could be a good strategic plan for GASP. The result of their work has been to develop the three-year strategic plan of which we are about to complete the first year.
One of the things the board highlighted is the need for GASP to be more involved in the communities we advocate on behalf of – GASP being more involved in the neighborhoods that bear the most pollution burden.
We seek to develop partnerships with neighbors, with individuals, with community organizations, with faith-based organizations – anyone interested in doing this community development work. This is one of my main priorities as the new Executive Director.
The other is to ensure that GASP continues to provide the kind of expertise that GASP has been doing for 52 years, educating residents about the impact of air quality on every aspect of their lives and the environment. how we could partner and leverage the resources available to GASP, leverage the reputation of GASP in order to continue to tackle these serious air quality issues in the region.
Holsopple: Like how?
Campbell: What we are particularly working on is focusing on environmental justice communities. We partner with individuals and community organizations within these environmental justice communities to exert continued pressure on the Allegheny County Health Department, existing operators and Allegheny County Council.
We are looking to expand our service footprint. We are looking for where it makes sense to partner with organizations that tackle water quality issues, that fight cancer and environmental health. We seek to share our expertise with these organizations so as not to remain siled. This way, we make sure that we are doing our part of the solution.
It is often easy for an environmental organization to be struck off as an environmental group. This is our niche. We will always push for better air quality. It is much harder to ignore the voices of residents who bear the burden of air pollution. We want to leverage our platform, our GASP platform, to ensure that these residents are able to talk to these regulators and that they become much harder to ignore when an entire community says we demand a better air quality.