Women’s History Month: GASP’s Feisty Founder Was a Pittsburgh Trailblazer

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GASP co-founder Michelle Madoff, who also served as our first president

March is Women’s History Month and truly, we couldn’t celebrate GASP history without highlighting all the women who helped us fight the good air quality fight for the past 50 years. Today, we are putting the spotlight on our co-founder and first president, the fiery Michelle Madoff.

They say that, “Well behaved women seldom make history.” The quote seems fitting when describing Michelle Madoff, the feisty co-founder of the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP).

Madoff, a four-term Pittsburgh city councilwoman who died in 2013, was often described as “colorful”—and for good reason.

She once famously waited at the corner of Fifth and Smithfield streets under what was then known as the Kaufmann’s clock at high noon for a fellow council member who said he’d kiss her behind if one of her proposals succeeded to make good on his promise.

For inquiring minds that want to know: The city councilman never showed up that day in 1983. About a dozen reporters and more than 100 onlookers, however, did.

Madoff grew up in Toronto and moved to Pittsburgh in 1961, when she quickly realized that pollution being emitted from industry sources was causing her to have asthma attacks. Her testimony before the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1969 ultimately led to her involvement in and co-founding of GASP later that year.

GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini remembers Madoff as a woman who was unwavering in her advocacy for clean air, as well as her belief that citizens had an absolute right to fight for it.

Michelle Madoff, GASP’s co-founder and first president

She described Madoff as a no-nonsense woman who pulled no punches.

“When polluters claimed there was no technology to clean up their plants, she’d show them reports from engineers on how it could be done. When they said they couldn’t afford it, she’d say, ‘Show me your profit and loss statements.’”

Under her leadership, GASP did its first high-profile push for clean air by creating what was known as, “The Dirty Dozen.” This list included the lawmakers who were profiting from the city’s “dirty industry at the cost of clean air.”

“The Dirty Dozen” for the first time put these lawmakers on blast, forcing them to be more transparent and inclusive when it came to political decisions that affected air quality.

While the list was one of GASP’s first wins under Madoff’s leadership, it certainly was not its last.

In 1970, GASP pushed the federal district court to require Allegheny County to adopt environmental standards based on the federal Clean Air Act. Then in the 1980s, GASP’s advocacy efforts pushed the county to cooperate with the EPA to enforce air quality standards at Clairton Coke Works.

What started as a conversation among concerned citizens in Madoff’s living room back in 1969 evolved into a nonprofit that now has five decades of experience making a difference in local air quality.

Here’s to Michelle Madoff, and to another 50 years of making strides in local air quality improvement.

Editor’s Note: Be on the lookout because GASP will need your help bestowing the Michelle Madoff Awards of Environmental Excellence. Check back soon for more information about how to submit a nomination.

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