Breathe Cam
Breathe Cam image of Edgar Thomson Works, 2018.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly will not reconvene for several more weeks. But one Pittsburgh politician is already pushing for a debate on our state’s air quality standards — or lack thereof.

On Aug.12, Representative Austin Davis introduced House Bill 1752 to the Environmental Resources & Energy Committee. This pair of laws would increase fines for industrial sites exceeding pollution thresholds and also require them to develop municipal notification plans to promptly alert the public when violations occur.

Davis represents the 35th Legislative District, which includes U.S. Steel’s infamous Clairton Coke Works facility.

Why introduce the bill more than a month before the legislative session begins on Sept. 23? To drive home the importance of this issue.

“The time to act is now,” Davis said in an announcement about the bill, “which is why I’ve introduced legislation that will increase fines and put some teeth into preventing air pollution in the first place.”

In an interview with NEXTpittsburgh this week, Davis said the idea for the legislation grew out of several suggestions made by Dr. Karen Hacker, the former director of the Allegheny County Health Department, at an open policy forum in early February. The forum was organized amid mounting public outrage over the fire at Clairton Coke Works in December and the delays in alerting nearby residents.

The proposed laws would require polluters to post public notices within 12 hours of exceeding emission limits if they are not resolved and would increase state fines from $20,000 to $37,500, in line with current EPA standards.

“Pennsylvania’s fine structure has lagged behind the EPA’s for a number of years,” said Davis.

Asked if he was considering any additional environmental measure, Davis said, “None that I’m willing to go into detail about, but we are obviously monitoring what’s going on. Not just in Clairton, but throughout the Commonwealth.”

Despite bipartisan concerns over the state’s environmental health, laws aimed at regulating polluting industries have a sad history of languishing in the general assembly, which remains dominated by steadfast allies of the fossil fuel sector.

To proceed to a vote in the committee and then on the assembly floor, Davis’s bills will have to be approved by chair Daryl Metcalfe (R-12). A long-time skeptic of climate change, Metcalfe claimed during a speech earlier this year that removing carbon from the atmosphere would damage vegetables.

“My office has just sent a letter asking him for his swift consideration,” said Davis.

Metcalfe’s office could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. But the proposal was cheered by the Allegheny County government.

“We are grateful to Representative Davis for introducing this legislation and are hopeful of its quick passage through the legislature,” said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “This legislation will give our Health Department additional tools to ensure quick compliance from companies.”

Going forward, Davis said that meaningful action to protect the environment will likely involve collaborations across many different levels of power.

“I don’t think this problem is a one-layer-of-government issue,” said Davis. “I think it’s going to take the county, the state and quite frankly the federal level all working together to provide better air quality.”

Bill O'Toole

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