The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh received a $2 million Brownfields Cleanup Grant award from the Environmental Protection Agency that will pay for the remediation of the slag heap near the edge of Frick Park between Squirrel Hill and Swisshelm Park. Photo courtesy of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh.

A former slag dumping site in Swisshelm Park is getting a sustainable makeover and is expected to generate clean energy for years to come.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh received a $2 million Brownfields Cleanup Grant award from the Environmental Protection Agency that will pay for the remediation of the slag heap near the edge of Frick Park between Squirrel Hill and Swisshelm Park.

The dump site was formerly owned by Duquesne Slag Co. and was acquired by the URA in 1990. Slag, toxic waste from steel manufacturing, was stockpiled on the site until 1972.

The URA had planned to build housing on this site as the final phase of the Summerset at Frick Park Development. Due to high costs and a lack of project interest, the URA scrapped that plan in 2021.

Last year, the URA and Department of Environmental Protection concluded that 21 acres are required to remediate the site so heavy metals are no longer airborne. For several years, discussions had been in the works to bring solar energy generation to the site.

“One of the goals of this project from its initiation was looking at the City of Pittsburgh and seeing what we can do to make it a most and more livable city,” says Lilly Freedman, manager of development projects for the URA. “Air quality really came to mind.”

Before solar panels are installed on the site, nearly 22 acres will be remediated. There are nearly 17 million cubic yards of slag, a byproduct of steel manufacturing. Slag contains known toxins and carcinogens harmful to humans. Photo courtesy of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh.

According to Trib Live, 17 million cubic yards of slag as high as 120 feet in some spots contaminate the site. Slag contains toxic metals and emits volatile organic compounds that are known to cause cancer and other health harms.

The DEP approved the URA’s $8.25 million plan last year to clean up the site. Congresswoman Summer Lee submitted a letter of support for the EPA grant.

“(This project) fulfills our commitments to environmental justice,” Lee said in a press release.

The first phase of the project is to remediate the 22-acre slag heap. According to the Green Building Alliance, land remediation can include many different techniques, including removing polluting pipes or tanks, soil vapor extraction and sealing off complex pollution areas.

The second phase is working with a development partner to bring solar power to 15 acres of the site. Construction is slated to begin later next year.

“This site is a serendipity of a perfect use due to its south-facing nature, and the site is already cleared because plant life cannot grow on top of the slag due to its toxicity and density,” Freedman says.

A rendering of the planned 15 acres of solar panels on the soon-to-be-remediated “Swisshelm Slags” dump site. Image courtesy of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh.

This will maximize solar generation as Pittsburgh only gets about 160 sunny days per year. The project is expected to generate nearly three megawatts of electricity. Freedman says that is intentional — over three megawatts would make the site utility-scale. This amount of energy keeps it at net metering production.

The final phase is dedicating 55 acres to the City of Pittsburgh for a Frick Park extension on the southern side of Nine Mile Run.

“Remediating the site and repositioning the land as a source of renewable energy furthers our mission to foster sustainable prosperity across Pittsburgh,” said Susheela Nemani-Stanger, URA executive director, in a press release.

“That’s the beauty of the story of the project,” Freedman adds. “We in Pittsburgh are challenged when it comes to redevelopment due to our industrial past. This is a beautiful example of us evolving in a new direction from our history of heavy, dirty industry into becoming a greener, tree-filled, park-filled city.”

A Pittsburgh native, Ethan is a freelance journalist interested in telling the stories of people doing great things to build community and sustainability. Ethan served as Editor-in-Chief of Allegheny College's newspaper, The Campus.