This screen-grab shows Pittsburgh's current grades in the ALA's 2018 State of the Air report.

The bad news delivered in the American Lung Association’s 2018 “State of the Air” report is leavened with encouragement for some cities. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh isn’t among them.

The report, based on data collected from 2014 through 2016, says that “many cities across the nation experienced more days when ground-level ozone, also known as ‘smog,’ reached unhealthy levels, including most of the cities with the worst ozone problems. Fortunately, most cities continued to reduce their burden of year-round particle pollution, and fewer cities suffered from more spikes in particle pollution, often called ‘soot.’”

Here’s the problem for Pittsburgh: Allegheny County received a failing grade for all three measures: ozone, daily particulate matter levels and long-term particulate matter levels.

For the daily measure for fine particle pollution, the metro area’s rank fell from 17th worst in the country last year to 10th worst this year. That’s out of 201 metro areas nationwide. We were also the only Pennsylvania county to see an increased frequency of unhealthy days for fine particle pollution. Our frequency of high particle pollution days was the highest for any county east of Utah. And beyond those spikes, we’re among the regions seeing higher particle levels year-round.

For annual particles, the three-year average worsened, increasing from 12.6 to 12.8 micrograms per cubic meter. For the third year in a row, Pittsburgh was ranked at having the 8th worst air in the country out of 187 places. We’re tied with the Lancaster, Pa. area for the worst air in the country outside of California. Find more stats and details here.

We won’t know until next year’s report whether improvements occurred during 2017 or are happening now.

One of the major polluters in the region, the Shenango Coke plant on Neville Island, shut down in 2015/2016.  (See the list of top 10 polluters in the region here.)

Meanwhile, efforts are underway by advocacy groups and health professionals to cut emissions and ensure updated permits for power plants and industrial manufacturing sites.

Permitting is a key area that needs to be improved.

There are 27 major sources of air pollution in Allegheny County, reports the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) in a recent blog. “When we checked in September 2016, two of those sources had never been issued Title V Operating Permits, and another nine of those sources had expired operating permits. The operating permits of five of those nine major sources had been expired for more than five years.”

Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, points out that residents can prod their local officials to be sure these permits are being updated and enforced, and can get engaged on the issue of cleaner air.

“The first thing people can do is to let local leaders know that this situation is unacceptable,” Mehalik says. “Citizens must call upon the region’s leaders to impose substantial and escalating fines on companies that repeatedly violate their air permits and make our air dirtier.”

Another key, he says, is a focus on clean energy: “The number of jobs in the clean energy sector already outpaces the number of jobs in dirty energy industries, and the growth potential is much higher in these clean energies than in plastics, petrochemicals, and old, commodity-driven polluting industries.”

Allegheny County residents also have the opportunity to learn more about their air through Breathe Cam, and the Smell Pittsburgh app, which allows you to report bad air and bad smells in your community. The reports go straight to the Allegheny County Health Department.

Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department responded to the State of the Air report, saying that while the County is doing more than ever, they need to do more still.

“Improving the air quality in Allegheny County is one of the Allegheny County Health Department’s top priorities as it has a direct impact on public health. We strive to hold polluters accountable and enforce regulations to the greatest extent possible. Last November we partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a significant compliance action in the Mon Valley. Our partnership with the EPA also includes working to require significant improvements at sources. We have attained the EPA ozone standards for two years.

“Since 2012, eight of our nine PM 2.5 monitors have met or even better than the standards set by the EPA. Our work is focused on making that nine out of nine. In January, we updated our process for assessing civil penalties to increase deference for future violations. We now have some of the strictest regulations for coke plants in the country. Every day and night, inspectors are on site at coke plants in the Mon Valley to quickly identify violations. In addition, our So2 and PM 2.5 state implementation plans require significant emission reductions.

“The area is on a long-term trend towards improvement, but we have further to go. We will continue to be aggressive and proactive to improve the air quality in our country, but also recognize that enforcement alone will not achieve our goals. As such, we call upon industry leaders, at both the local and regional levels, to join us in doing what is needed to accelerate change.”

Melissa Rayworth

Kidsburgh Editor Melissa Rayworth specializes in stories about culture, gender, design and parenting. She has written for a variety of outlets in the U.S. and Asia, and is a frequent contributor to The...