The Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) Tuesday announced its intention to relocate the Air Quality Program’s primary air pollution monitoring facilities from Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood to the City’s North Side in 2023.
The move highlights the best of the Air Quality Program but also leaves questions unanswered about transparency and decision-making in county leadership.
The “best” was on display Tuesday morning in a technical presentation of what will go into the move. Suffice it to say transferring equipment just a few miles downriver will be far more involved than most would think.
The Lawrenceville monitoring site currently serves as Allegheny County’s primary air quality monitoring site and houses the most complex and complete array of government agency air monitoring instrumentation in western Pennsylvania. The technical gear and gadgets measure toxic pollutants, the criteria pollutants like particulate matter, and ozone-forming pollutants, among others.
In addition, these measurements go beyond monitoring ambient air for threats to human health; the measurements and subsequent analysis are designed to help the EPA better understand the causes and patterns of air pollution. By using precision, standardized, and continuously calibrated instrumentation, data collected at this site is comparable nationwide.
With that mission at stake, ACHD reported that scouting for an appropriate site began in the summer of 2021. In addition, the move is subject to EPA approval and will be part of a proposal open to public comment that should be published this May.
“Moving the monitoring site to an Environmental Justice Community as well as the significant planning and effort that have gone into the move point to this being a win for air quality and public health,” GASP Executive Director Patrick Campbell said. “But we still have questions as to why the move is taking place, and that’s troubling.”
Without comment or explanation, the technical presentation Tuesday noted simply “[r]emaining on the Clack Campus (in Lawrenceville) is not an option.”
It was mentioned that other ACHD programs with offices on the Clack Campus would also be moving, but no details were offered. Also not mentioned: where the non-monitoring portion of the Air Quality Program would end up.
It seems clear that Allegheny County is making way for some new use of the site, but details were sketchy on that as well.
ACHD Chief Operating Officer Patrick Dowd was quick to point out that the Lawrenceville Community would benefit from a new use of the site but did not elaborate on exactly how.
The Clack Campus is 5.2 acres of land adjacent to Pittsburgh’s Arsenal Park but also it is also 5.2 acres of land in a very hot real estate market.
When asked about what relocation and related costs the Air Quality Program will incur, Dowd replied that there will be costs and benefits, but referred to county leadership as the best place to point budgetary questions.
“Mr. Dowd was correct on one point: the Clack Campus is a county-owned property and as landlord, the county can ask its health department tenants to move on,” GASP Staff Attorney Ned Mulcahy said. “But Mr. Dowd didn’t convince me the Air Quality Program’s best interest – and therefore the best interest of cleaner air and public health – were the county’s primary motivations here.”
He continued: “That property was donated to the county in 1957 for public health functions. The county would show itself as an awfully cruel landlord if the ACHD programs asked to relocate don’t benefit from any sale of the Clack Campus.”