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ACHD Warning of Increased Air Pollution Levels through Monday Reinforces Need for Episodic Weather R

The Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) on Thursday published an air dispersion forecast noting that residents should expect increased air pollution levels through Monday as our area experiences several days of stagnant conditions.

If this news caught you off guard, you weren’t alone. This ominous prediction appeared on what might fairly be called a not-well-traveled corner of the internet, but it certainly wasn’t a secret.

The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and its regional partners on Wednesday issued a Code Orange Air Quality Action Day for particulate matter (PM 2.5) for Thursday, Nov. 5 for the Liberty-Clairton area (composed of Clairton, Glassport, Lincoln, Liberty, and Port Vue). On Thursday DEP issued an identical Action Day alert for Friday.

While ACHD is not responsible for issuing official Code Orange warnings, the County’s “Allegheny Alerts” system only broadcast the Friday warning – no such broadcast occurred in advance of today’s poor air quality.

“Residents in the Liberty-Clairton area woke up Thursday to worse than code orange air quality – the AQI peaked into the red, unhealthy-for-everyone range early Thursday,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said. “GASP continues to call on ACHD to be more responsible stewards of public health by notifying residents when these events are expected to take place.”

It is GASP’s position that ACHD must now make good on its promise to draft regulations substantially limiting air pollution when atmospheric conditions are expected to exacerbate the area’s already notoriously poor air quality.

In fact, GASP just this week provided comments to the County’s Board of Health imploring it to make those regulations a priority, especially as we head into the winter months when there are more frequent days with poor air dispersion.

Local residents might recall that last year’s holiday season was marred by eight days of unrelenting air pollution during which county residents were forced to endure air quality so poor that ranked local air quality as the worst in the nation.

ACHD initially issued a statement that largely blamed the weather for the poor air quality, merely relaying to the public that U.S. Steel’s and other Mon Valley facilities were operating within permit limits.

“That was less than encouraging, considering U.S. Steel is permitted literally to emit hundreds of tons of air pollution each year,” Filippini noted.

After widespread outrage from GASP, fellow environmental groups, and residents, ACHD announced in early January a new effort to fight weather-related air pollution events with officials noting, “We must also explore new regulations that would impose corrective action requirements on industry during short-term pollution events…These extended exceedances and higher pollution levels are a clear threat to the health of the county’s residents, but ACHD’s current regulations do not provide options to address this issue.”

GASP couldn’t agree more.

“ACHD’s current episodic air pollution regulations are woefully outdated – so old in fact that they do not even list an action level for PM2.5,” GASP senior staff attorney John Baillie added.

While GASP initially was heartened to learn ACHD was planning to propose new air quality regulations aimed at emission mitigation requirements for industries operating during weather-related pollution episodes, sadly, no such proposal ever materialized.

“Now more than ever ACHD needs an emission-reduction plan in place that could be implemented within 24 hours of notice that a public health hazard exists. So, the question is: Where is the draft plan?” Filippini asked. “Are we prepared should there be a repeat of last December? And what is U.S. Steel doing to prepare?”

GASP earlier this year wrote an open letter to U.S. Steel urging it to communicate to the public how it will protect local residents if – and when – our area experiences another spate of poor air dispersion days. This is more important now than ever as communities also deal with COVID-19.

“We believe the question needs to again be asked: Is the company prepared to extend coking times or dial down production during a future episodic weather event?” Filippini asked. “If nothing else, 2020 has taught us that U.S. Steel can indeed operate at a reduced production rate when market conditions demand it. Are they willing to be proactive about protecting public health and operate less when stagnant air is predicted, as well?”

These questions need to be answered, and our front-line communities deserve better. That’s why GASP is again formally calling on ACHD and Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald to follow up on its promise to address this issue ASAP.

Editor’s Note: You can read the ACHD air dispersion report here. Need more info on Friday’s Code Orange Action Day? Here’s the alert from DEP:

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