Our air is bad, and it’s getting worse.
For Pittsburgh, that’s the main takeaway from the American Lung Association’s (ALA) 20th annual State of the Air (SOTA) report, which ranked our city at number 7 for most year-round particle pollution. The comprehensive study also ranked us 10th for worst short-term particle pollution nationwide. On top of that, Pittsburgh moved from 37th to 28th (out of 227 areas studied) on the ranking of the worst metropolitan regions for ozone pollution, earning our city’s air quality yet another “F.”
While Allegheny County’s ozone numbers had begun to drop between the 2010-2012 study and the data released for the 2014-2016 study, they rose slightly in this new report, which is based on data collected during 2015 through 2017.
Our particle pollution numbers had also begun approaching passing levels as of the 2013-2015 study. But they are trending in the wrong direction.
“Over the period this ALA report covers, the Pittsburgh metropolitan region had an average of 69 percent of its days as ‘not good.’ For Allegheny County, 54 percent of the time was ‘not good,” said Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, in a statement about the report. “What does it mean when between half to two-thirds of all days are not good air days in our region and county? It means that we all pay a price with our health, our families and our reduced prosperity. We need to pull together to fix this stain on our community. We have a right to breathe healthy air.”
Across several rankings, the only sections of the United States with worse overall air quality were located on the West Coast, with Southern California continuing to lead the nation in toxic air.
The authors of the report say that on a national level, the overall slide in air quality is driven by extreme weather caused by global warming and wildfires in the west.
But in Pittsburgh’s case, citizens, activists and environmental groups consistently point to long-established polluters like Clairton Coke Works as the drivers of our toxic air.
The information in the report was aggregated from public air quality monitors across the country. In Allegheny County, data from our local monitors formed the basis for several of the Health Department’s high-profile enforcement actions against U.S. Steel in the past year, and the department has installed several more across the Mon Valley since the start of 2019.
In an interview with the Post-Gazette, Allegheny County Health Department Director Karen Hacker called the results, “a reminder that air quality continues to be one of the most pressing public health challenges in our area.”
The office of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
While the trends are deeply disturbing, local experts say our regional leaders have many tools at their disposal to counter the slide.
Speaking to NEXTPittsburgh on Wednesday, Rachel Filippini, executive director of Group Against Smog and Pollution, highlighted several policies Allegheny County authorities could institute to improve air quality, including revising coke oven regulations and adopting the city’s clean construction equipment rules countywide.
However, she added that stepped-up laws must go hand in hand with serious enforcement by our local leaders.
“When it comes to reducing large amounts of particulates in our region, which we absolutely need to do, the bulk of the burden is really going to fall on the regulatory agencies whose charge it is to protect public health and clean up the air, and to the largest emitters of fine particulates in our region, one of them being Clairton Coke Works,” said Filippini. “It doesn’t matter really how many great regulations we have on the books, or good plans, or good permits, if they’re not being enforced.”