What you have to find out about Allegheny County’s air high quality enhancements

Allegheny County is the first to meet federal clean air standards, according to initial data from Allegheny County’s Department of Health.

Improved air quality levels measured in 2020 fell below EPA limits on the county’s most polluted monitor near US Steel’s Clairton Coke WorksKeep out for particulates, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide and ozone.

The numbers come from preliminary data the county is reviewing to send to the EPA for certification.

Reid Frazier and Kara Holsopple of the Allegheny Front discuss how these gains were made and whether they will last.

LISTEN to their conversation

How did the county finally meet federal air quality standards?

2020 was the year of the pandemic, and that resulted in lower air pollution from car traffic and power plants. But the county says it would have met these federal air quality standards even without COVID-19.

District officials say they have imposed stricter fines and enforcement, and that these were the main drivers of improvement. They said their original plan was to meet air quality standards by the end of 2021, but they actually met it by the end of 2020.

The county cites a 2017 violation of US Steel’s. Edgar Thomson works in Braddock to contain his emissions. The county also has a new policy to increase fines for air pollution. They say these things seem to have worked.

What pollutants are included in these standards and how do they affect people’s bodies?

The EPA has six so-called criteria for air pollutants. This doesn’t include all types of air pollution, but these are some of the big ones. They are fine dust, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, lead and ground-level ozone.

The EPA sets National Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for these pollutants, which are measured in the outside air, not from a chimney or exhaust pipe. If you meet these EPA standards, as you do now in Allegheny County, EPA scientists say that your air is in an acceptable range so that it is safe to breathe.

All of these pollutants cause various health effects: heart and lung disease and have been shown to lead to premature death. According to the World Health Organization, seven million people worldwide die from air pollution.

But there are other types of pollution too, including a class of pollutants known as dangerous air pollutants, which are also very bad for you and can cause cancer that are not necessarily included in these pollutant criteria.

What do environmentalists say about this milestone?

Environmentalists have been talking about pollution in Allegheny County for many years. The first thing they will tell you is that this is good news. But they will also tell you that much remains to be done. They will point out that there are places and times in the county when it is not yet safe to breathe air.

Zack Barber, a clean air advocate for Penn Environment group, said the numbers show the county is making progress. But he said US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works are still a major source of air pollution, like benzene, which is known to be a carcinogen, and hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs. These pollutants are not part of the air quality standards.

“The health department has definitely stepped up things, but a lot more work is needed to really tackle some of the worst and most toxic spills that make people in the county sick,” he said.

Environmental groups will also note that EPA’s own scientists say the EPA’s current pollution limits should be stricter. In December, the Trump administration decided to keep its current standard for soot pollution, that is, particulate matter at 12 micrograms per cubic meter, despite its scientists saying it should actually be closer to eight or 10 micrograms per cubic meter. Well, just for reference, the county’s current three-year average for particulate matter is 11, between 10 and 12, which means the county would not meet this stricter standard.

EPA refuses to strengthen the carbon black standard

What does Rich Fitzgerald, executive director of Allegheny County say?

Rich Fitzgerald said it was really good news for the county and the result of not only the work the Allegheny County’s Health Department did, but also the companies and local groups that have worked on these issues for many years. He acknowledged that the county is still being criticized and that there is still unhealthy air pollution at certain times and in certain places. He said overall it makes the region more livable.

“For someone like me or people from the Chamber of Commerce or the mayor or others, [we]can really point that out [as making the county] Great place to do business. This is a great place to move, ”he said.

How did air inversions and the US Steel’s Christmas Eve fire in 2018 impact the county’s compliance with federal standards?

The county’s compliance with federal air quality standards came despite the fact that the county had several incidents in recent years that made the air quality really bad here in Pittsburgh.

During Christmas week 2019 and again in November, air inversions caused air quality warnings in the Pittsburgh area for several days. Air inversions are weather patterns that trap air pollution near the ground and are very common here in western Pennsylvania during winter. Inversions become more common with climate change.

After a number of smoggy days, Allegheny County wants polluters to reduce emissions on some weather events

Over Christmas 2018, a fire at US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works suspended the plant’s air pollution control for several months, resulting in lots of pollution, lots of air quality complaints and lots of fines. The facility has been fined more than $ 5 million for air quality violations since 2015.

US Steel had discussed investing over $ 1 billion in modernizing its operations in the Mon Valley in Clairton and the Edgar Thomson plant in Braddock. The company has since declined because it lost a lot of money last year. 2020 was a bad year for the steel industry, what to do with the pandemic and everything. Now you’re not sure if you really want to spend all that money in Mon Valley. These improvements would have significantly reduced air pollution from these facilities.

Will this improvement in air quality in the Pittsburgh area continue?

The county says the air quality gains will be permanent. There are some things that when you look at the numbers could give you a break from thinking about when the economy is back and we have more economic activity.

A major source of air pollution in Pittsburgh is the air that enters the area from headwinds from us. Last year air pollution data from power plants in Pennsylvania shows a dramatic 40 to 50 percent decrease in air pollution from coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania.

Part of this is because facilities don’t run as often or do more air pollution controls. Some plants, such as the Bruce Mansfield Power Plant, which closed in late 2019, have just been shut down. It was once the largest coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania and was located just off the wind from Pittsburgh in Beaver County. Now there’s no pollution coming from Bruce Mansfield.

Vehicle traffic also declined in 2020. It is hoped that all of these gains will be permanent. But one has to wonder what will happen when coal plants come back up, when the economy improves, and what happens when people commute more to their offices. I think a lot of this remains to be seen. But overall, in a year of bad news, we’re going to pick up some good news.

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