“Six people out of 12 of us have gotten cancer,” says Tony Buba, a long-time resident of Braddock, Pennsylvania, in a new short documentary from Topic. When Buba’s father made the connection between the high incidence of cancer and the family’s history of employment at the local steel mill, he put a notice in the mill employment office instructing the hiring managers not to hire Buba. “He didn’t want me working down there,” Buba says.
The steel from the mill in Braddock, located in Allegheny County, is said to have built the Brooklyn Bridge and other iconic American infrastructure. It also ranks in the top 2% of counties in the U.S. for cancer from air pollution. Rosie Haber’s film—part of a four-episode series—examines the town’s history of redlining, which has resulted in a public health crisis that has gone largely unaddressed.
“Most of the African-American population lives in an area called The Bottom, which is down by the mill,” says Buba in the film. He goes on to explain that Braddock’s black residents have historically held the lowest-paying jobs with the worst working conditions at the mill.
“A lot of cancer, a lot of lung disease,” says Buba. “They called them ‘man-killing jobs.’ They were basically doing the work that they would not dare send a human being in to do because you were breathing in things that would kill you later on.”
Haber told The Atlantic that she began thinking about Braddock after reading about environmental racism across the country. “From the water crisis in Flint to the pipeline in Standing Rock to disaster capitalism in Puerto Rico, it is happening all across the U.S.,” Haber said. “It is an abhorrent story and a quintessentially American one.”
In the series, Summer Lee, a State Representative for District 34, which includes Braddock, speaks to the issue. “I don’t really see it as environmental racism,” she says. “I just see it as another piece of systemic racism.”