Clairton Coke Works. Courtesy of The Breathe Project. Photo by Mark Dixon/ Blue Lens.

As the Allegheny County Health Department (ACDH) searches for a new leader, environmental activists are urging the agency to ramp up its enforcement of local air quality standards.

Outside the county courthouse this morning, the advocacy group PennEnvironment released their newest report, “Cutting through the Smoke: Why the Allegheny County Health Department Must Turn the Corner on Decades of Weak Clean Air Enforcement.”

Written by Zachary Barber of PennEnvironment and Tony Dutzik of the Frontier Group, the report closely examines a number of recent case studies of local industrial facilities violating air quality standards, with a focus on how the department responded to the incidents.

These case studies range from well-known incidents like the Christmas Eve fire at the Clairton Coke Works to less infamous violators like the Allied Waste Systems Imperial Landfill in Findlay Township and Eastman Chemical Resins, Inc. in West Elizabeth.

“Time and again, ACHD has acted slowly in response to air pollution complaints, relied on often-violated agreements negotiated with industrial facilities, failed to issue required air pollution permits on time, and failed to establish a credible threat of tough enforcement,” reads the report. “ACHD must recognize the lessons of past enforcement failures and act promptly and aggressively against illegal polluters.”

The main recommendations of the report include:

-Step up the enforcement and updating of Title V operating permits, which polluters are required to obtain under the Clean Air Act. The report notes that Eastman Chemical Resins, among other companies, have never had a Title V permit, while Clairton Coke Works’ permit expired in May.

-Use aggressive enforcement actions rather than negotiated settlements, which the department has historically preferred. “While this approach may lead to constructive partnerships to cut pollution,” said the report, “in practice, it has often led to repeated violations of the terms of consent orders by polluters, followed by yet more agreements destined to be violated.”

-Expand air quality monitoring in neighborhoods near polluters, and look at ways to empower more citizen monitors.

-Build stronger collaborations with community groups as well as regulators at the state and federal level.

In an email to NEXTpittsburgh, ACHD Deputy Director of Environmental Health, Jim Kelly defended the department’s work. “Our actions clearly demonstrate our renewed focus on achieving future air quality improvements,” wrote Kelly. “We will continue to be aggressive and proactive, and proceed with our efforts to hold industry accountable for adherence to all local, state and federal air regulations.”

Kelly added, “We also recognize that enforcement and policy will not achieve all of our goals. We continue to call upon industry leaders at the local and regional levels to accelerate change to make the air better for all residents, and invite advocates to join us in that charge.”

While the report spares ACHD no criticism, the authors do take time to praise recent actions the department took under the leadership of Dr. Karen Hacker, who resigned in July.

“There are, however, signs of change,” reads the report. “ACHD has recently stated its intention to move away from negotiated settlements, partnered with state and federal agencies and with citizens’ groups to enforce the law, and more fully used its authority to issue penalties to compel quicker action to cut emissions.”

Find the full report here.

In a comment included with PennEnvironment’s release of the report, Wilkinsburg Mayor Marita Garrett spoke about the importance of doing more than just talking about the importance of sustainability and limiting air pollution throughout our region.

“It’s time for all officials to do their part in reducing pollution and saving our livelihood,” Garrett said. “An individual’s zip code should never be a predictor of one’s health outcome.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.