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Allegheny Co. Health Dept. Clean Air Fund ‘Planning Framework,’ U.S. Steel’s Request, and an H2S Stu

Updated: Sep 9, 2022

Allegheny County Health Department leaders on Monday night proposed a long-term “spending framework” for its Clean Air Fund, saying that “considerable challenges lay ahead” that will require a more strategic approach to how that money is spent.

As if ripped from the pages of a drama class textbook, the discussion that ensued over this and other matters related to the Clean Air Fund had the set-up, confrontation, and resolution of a classic three-act drama.

Air Pollution Control Advisory Committee proceedings will never make for a box office smash hit, but a lot went on Monday night, not much was decided, and the potential impacts on air quality are worth reporting.

First, the set-up.

On the Allegheny County Health Department balance sheet there exists a specific pot of money that holds all fines and penalties received by the Air Quality Program known as the Clean Air Fund. By regulation, this money must be spent on activities “related to the improvement of air quality within Allegheny County” and that “will increase or improve knowledge concerning air pollution, its causes, its effects, and the control thereof.”

While regulations also spell out potential uses of the fund, the department has the freedom to choose the projects and set the procedures. GASP has taken issue with both historically (see more on that here). 

During his presentation (which you can view here), ACHD Chief Operating Officer Patrick Dowd said the department had been tasked with being “more deliberate” with how Clean Air Funding is doled out so it could act as a “catalyst for long-term change.”

This would be accomplished by funding direct allocations, partnerships, and ACHD operational expenses. Specific ideas included funding for equipment, research and development, greening efforts, consultants, and education.

Ending with a suggestion that regulations be changed to allow ACHD to use up to 50 percent of the fund balance annually – the current allocation is just 5 percent – struck an awkward note, but unfortunately, this presentation didn’t generate the discussion we – and likely also ACHD – had hoped for.

As the silence and lack of lively debate went on, it became clear it was time for Act Two: Confrontation.

Also on the agenda last night were Clean Air Fund requests, one of which was submitted by U.S. Steel and rejected by ACHD involving the company asking for Clean Air Fund money for a locomotive emissions-reduction project.

After a detailed explanation of why the department chose not to consider it for funding, a circular and extended discussion – perhaps “argument” is a better word – by Air Advisory Committee members Mark Jeffrey and Chip Babst followed.

The two – uncannily in unison – were adamant that the department did not have the authority to deny the application on its own. ACHD asserted it had such authority. Again: think “circular.”

Ultimately, the item was tabled. This only ensures that the duo will get a second chance to belabor their point.

This of course was a perfect segue into the “resolution” contained all third acts.

After all the verbal acrobatics over vision and procedure for the Clean Air Fund, Mr. Dowd introduced his last bit of business for the night: a Clean Air Fund request for a health research project.

The $30,000 proposal – said to have been personally submitted by ACHD Director Dr. Debra Bogan – was to design a research study to measure the impact of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) on the health of Allegheny County residents. Partners would include the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and Duquesne University.

Committee members narrowly voted to recommend that the Allegheny County Board of Health approve and fund the project. For inquiring minds that want to know: Jeffrey voted no and Babst abstained.

Close scene.

“As performances go, we’d have to give it a mixed review,” GASP Executive Director Patrick Campbell said. “Our stance on the Clean Air Fund hasn’t changed. We agree ACHD needs to take action to better utilize Clean Air Funds, but also believe they need to take on the related issues of funding procedures and transparency.”

He continued:

“Seeking input is a good step and seeking funding for the health study is a better step, but continuing to entertain individual applications ad hoc is a waste of resources, unfairly favors insiders, and is many, many steps in the wrong direction.”

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