Allegheny County’s air displays confirmed compliance with federal requirements. However what does that imply for the air you breathe? – PublicSource
After so many warnings in late fall of poor air quality due to a weather-related inversion that includes pollution in the Pittsburgh area, an announcement from Allegheny County last week about improvements in air quality could have come as a surprise. A week after the county reported that all eight air quality monitors met federal air quality standards for the first time, PublicSource is offering a breakdown of the news to better understand what the announcement really means.
Allegheny County’s Department of Health [ACHD]announced Jan. 26 that preliminary data from observers shows the county is meeting 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 shows various regulations and efforts by county officials are beginning to improve air quality, environmental groups and the Director of the Department of Health, Dr. Debra Bogen, agreed that there is still much work to be done before neighborhoods can breathe clean air all year round.
If the EPA confirms that the district monitors met their air quality standards, it would change the district health department’s power to pass new emission-reduction laws, according to Jim Kelly, deputy director of the health department. It wouldn’t change the department’s assertiveness. and ACHD will continue to be the lead agency in charge of monitoring and protecting the county’s air quality.
Rachel Filippini, the managing director of the anti-smog and pollution group [GASP], said that once the county’s achievement is confirmed, ACHD will no longer be required to develop and submit government implementation plans [SIP]These include pollution control measures submitted for EPA approval to keep pollution down. Filippini said some additional measures will stay in place for a while to ensure the county continues to meet air quality standards.
The health department is waiting for the EPA to review and confirm that the monitors have met air quality standards, but county spokeswoman Amie Downs said she doesn’t know how long it will take the county to hit the mark. The EPA will review the data and monitors to ensure the monitors do not need to be recalibrated and will review the data found for systemic deviations. Matthew Mehalik, the executive director of Breathe Project, said the revision process usually results in only minor changes unless they find a buggy monitor that causes the data to become unusable.
Allegheny’s eight monitors are located in Liberty, Avalon, Lawrenceville, South Fayette, Harrison, Clairton, North Braddock, and along Parkway East. The county’s ninth monitor, located at the Lincoln surveillance site, was shut down in early January after the site no longer met regulatory requirements for air quality monitors due to overgrown trees blocking air flow to the site. It was originally installed to collect data for a study that was completed years ago.
In recent years, air quality around the Liberty monitor near US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works has kept the county from complying with federal particulate matter (PM 2.5) standards.
The 2020 data collected by the Liberty Monitor shows that the annual average of fine dust particles is 9.8 micrograms per cubic meter and the 24-hour average is 27.2 micrograms per cubic meter. The EPA’s annual standard for particulate matter is 12 micrograms per cubic meter and the 24 hour standard is 35 micrograms per cubic meter.
An advisory panel of air pollution scientists dismissed from the EPA under the Trump administration released an independent report in 2019 that indicated that current standards for particulate matter are still too high and fail to protect public health. The standards that have been tightened five times since the Clean Air Act came into forceare updated regularly to reflect recent studies on the effects of pollution on health.
Several recent studies showed that communities that met current EPA standards still showed decreases in mortality and life expectancy, as well as increases in respiratory diseases in children due to pollution. The panel’s report concluded that the annual standard for particulate matter should be lowered between 8 micrograms per cubic meter and 10 micrograms per cubic meter and that the 24-hour standard should be lowered between 25 micrograms per cubic meter and 30 micrograms per cubic meter.
While Allegheny County meets current particulate matter standards, environmentalists point out that hydrogen sulfide, which makes the air smell like rotten eggs, continues to be a problem. In 2020, the county had a total of 26 breaches of Pennsylvania’s 24-hour air quality standard for Hydrogen sulfide on the Liberty Monitor and two more on the North Braddock Monitor. During a temperature inversion in early November, the air around the Liberty monitor exceeded the state standard for seven days straight, with an average concentration of 0.006 ppm. The 24 hour standard is 0.005 ppm. Conversely, trapped emissions from the facility and other sources of pollution such as traffic and households can cause air quality values to exceed federal standards and pose health risks for residents.
ON study Allegheny County was ranked one of the top US countries with the highest risk of cancer from air pollution in 2018 by the University of Pittsburgh.
Poor air quality in Allegheny County has also caused the county to have some of the highest asthma rates in the country. The total asthma rate among children in the district is 11%.
The state of the air for the American Lung Association in 2020 report ranked the Pittsburgh Metro Area as the eighth most polluted and gave the area’s air an F for the level of particulate matter pollution.
US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, the largest coke producer in North America, is one of the largest sources of pollution in western Pennsylvania. In a fire in December 2018, the pollution controls in the facility were switched off, followed by a second fire in June 2019 in which the controls were switched off a second time. The company has been charged and sued multiple times for air pollution violations Punished several times by the district health department.
“This achievement comes after years of hard work by the Department of Health, federal and state agencies, and local industries to purify Allegheny County’s air,” said Bogen of the latest air quality data. “But we have more work to do, and the health department is working to ensure that everyone in Allegheny County has clean air to breathe.”
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Filippini from CFSP. “We still have too many days when bad smells and pollution from industrial sources make the air unhealthy to breathe. And our most vulnerable people – children, the elderly, and people with heart and lung disease – suffer the most. There are still a number of major sources in the county that lack the required air quality permits and other sources that continue to violate air quality laws. “
Regarding the 2019 report of the former EPA Advisory Board calling for new air quality standards:
“From the point of view of the district, the need to pursue this health protection standard is relevant now. We shouldn’t be one of the last places in the country to meet this new standard that is very likely to emerge, ”said Mehalik of the Breathe Project. “We should try to become national leaders in protecting our residents. The county should communicate about the need to meet more health protection standards instead of celebrating arriving near the last seat. “
The district health department is currently going through the public comment process to get a revision Coke oven regulations. In a recent hearing, more than 70 locals testified, including many Mon Valley residents, who have asked the health department for stricter regulations. The proposed ordinances aim to revise the inspection procedures for coke ovens and update the current standards for coke oven gases. The health department is currently reviewing the various comments submitted and will issue a comment response document and finalize the proposed regulations once they have completed their review. US Steel has also challenged the proposed changes, stating that the health department couldn’t justify the revisions.
The health department is also Working on a rule that requires companies to further limit emissions during weather-related pollution incidents like when an inversion captures industrial pollution. A subcommittee of the Allegheny County’s Air Quality Advisory Committee is expected to vote on the rule in early 2021 before going through the rest of the permitting process required to reach Allegheny County Council. These rules are expected to be discussed during the departments’ meeting on March 3rd before being released for public comment.
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Danielle Cruz is an editorial intern at PublicSource. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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