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After so many alerts in late fall about poor air quality due to a weather-related inversion trapping pollution over the Pittsburgh area, an announcement last week by Allegheny County about air quality improvements may have come as a surprise. So, one week after the county reported that all eight air quality monitors met federal air quality standards for the first time, PublicSource is providing a breakdown of the news for further understanding of what the announcement really means.

The brief

The Allegheny County Department of Health [ACHD], on Jan. 26, announced that preliminary data from the monitors show that the county is in compliance with the air quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone and particulate matter (PM 2.5, PM 10).

While the data show that various regulations and efforts being taken by county officials are starting to improve the air quality, environmental advocacy groups and Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen agree there is still a lot more work to do before neighborhoods are able to breathe clean air year-round.

If the EPA confirms that the county monitors have met its air quality standards, it would change the county health department’s authority to enact new legislation to reduce emissions, according to Jim Kelly, the health department’s deputy director.  It would not alter the department’s enforcement abilities, and ACHD will continue to be the lead agency in charge of monitoring and protecting the county’s air quality.

Rachel Filippini, the executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution [GASP], said that once the county’s attainment has been confirmed, ACHD will no longer be required to develop and submit State Implementation Plans [SIP], which include pollution control measures submitted for EPA approval to keep pollution down. Filippini said some extra measures will stay in place for a while to ensure that the county continues to meet air quality standards.

Key facts

The health department is waiting on the EPA to review and confirm that the monitors have met the air quality standards, but county spokesperson Amie Downs said they do not know how long it will take for the county to receive attainment. The EPA will review the data and monitors to ensure that the monitors don’t need to be recalibrated and check for systemic bias in the data found. Matthew Mehalik, the executive director of Breathe Project, said that the revision procedure usually only results in minor changes unless they find a malfunctioning monitor that caused the data to become unusable.

Allegheny’s eight monitors are located in Liberty, Avalon, Lawrenceville, South Fayette, Harrison, Clairton, North Braddock and along the Parkway East. The county’s ninth monitor, located at the Lincoln monitoring site, was taken down in early January after the site no longer met the regulatory requirements for air quality monitors due to overgrown trees blocking airflow to the site. It was initially installed to collect data for a study that concluded years ago.

In recent years, the air quality around the Liberty monitor, which is near U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, has kept the county from being compliant with the federal standards for fine particulate matter (PM 2.5).

An advisory panel of air pollution scientists — fired from the EPA under the Trump administration — released an independent report in 2019 warning that the current standards for fine particulate matter were still too high and do not protect public health. The standards, which have been made more stringent five times since the Clean Air Act was enacted, are periodically updated to include more recent studies about the impact of pollution on health.

Several recent studies showed that communities that were in compliance with current EPA standards were still showing decreases in mortality and life expectancy and increased respiratory disease in children as a result of pollution. The panel’s report concluded that the annual standard for fine particulate matter should be lowered between 8 micrograms per cubic meter and 10 micrograms per cubic meter and that the 24-hour standard be lowered between 25 micrograms per cubic meter and 30 micrograms per cubic meter.

While Allegheny County is compliant with the current particulate matter standards, environmental advocates point out that hydrogen sulfide, which makes the air smell like rotten eggs, remains a problem. In 2020, the county had a total of 26 exceedances of Pennsylvania’s 24-hour air quality standard for hydrogen sulfide at the Liberty monitor and two more at the North Braddock monitor. During a temperature inversion in early November, the air around the Liberty monitor exceeded the state’s standard for seven days straight, with an average concentration of 0.006 parts per million. The 24-hour standard is 0.005 parts per million. In an inversion, trapped emissions from the facility — as well as other sources of pollution, such as traffic and households — can cause air quality readings to exceed federal standards and pose health risks for residents.

Key background 

study done by the University of Pittsburgh in 2018 ranked Allegheny County as one of the top U.S. counties with the highest risk of cancer from air pollution.

The poor air quality in Allegheny County has also led to the county having some of the highest rates of asthma in the country. The county’s overall child asthma rate is 11%.

The American Lung Association’s 2020 State of the Air report ranked the Pittsburgh Metro Area as the eighth-most polluted and gave the area’s air an F for the levels of fine particle pollution.

U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, which is the largest producer of coke in North America, is one of the biggest sources of pollution in Western Pennsylvania. A December 2018 fire knocked out pollution controls at the facility, followed by a second fire in June 2019, which knocked the controls out a second time. The company has been accused and sued multiple times for air pollution violations and has been fined multiple times by the county health department.

Voices

“This achievement comes after years of hard work by the Health Department, federal and state agencies and local industry to clean up the air in Allegheny County,” Bogen said of the recent air quality data. “But we have more work to do, and the Health Department is committed to ensuring everyone in Allegheny County has clean air to breathe.”

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Filippini of GASP. “We still have too many days when foul odors and pollution from industrial sources makes the air unhealthy to breathe. And our most vulnerable — children, the elderly and those with heart and lung disease — suffer the most. There are still a number of large sources in the county which lack the necessary air quality permits and other sources which continue to flout air quality laws.”

In reference to the 2019 report by the former EPA advisory panel calling for new air quality standards:

“What is relevant from the County’s perspective is the need to pursue this more health protective standard now. We should not be one of the last places in the country to meet this new standard, which is very likely to come into existence,” said Mehalik of the Breathe Project. “We should try to become national leaders in protecting our residents. The county should start communicating about the need to meet more health protective standards instead of celebrating coming in near last place.”

What’s next

The county health department is currently going through the public comment process as they look to revise coke oven regulations. In a recent hearing, more than 70 local people testified including many Mon Valley residents who asked the health department for more stringent regulations. The proposed regulations look to revise inspection procedures for coke ovens and update current coke oven gas standards. The health department is currently reviewing the various comments submitted and will issue a comment response document as well as finalize the proposed regulations once they have finished their review. U.S. Steel has also challenged the proposed changes, saying that the health department has not been able to justify the revisions.

The health department is also working on a rule that would require companies to further limit emissions during weather-related pollution episodes like when an inversion traps in pollution from industrial companies. A subcommittee of Allegheny County’s Air Pollution Control Advisory Committee is set to vote on the rule sometime in early 2021 before it goes through the rest of the approval process needed to reach Allegheny County Council.  These regulations are likely to be brought up during the departments meeting on March 3 before being released for public comment.

Danielle Cruz is a PublicSource editorial intern. She can be reached at danielle@publicsource.org.