Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) announced in a press release Tuesday that, for the first time in its history, all air quality monitors in Allegheny County have met federal air quality standards. This means air quality in the county now meets federal, health-based standards for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone, and particulate matter (PM2.5, PM10).
“This achievement comes after years of hard work by the Health Department, federal and state agencies, and local industry to clean up the air in Allegheny County,” Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen said in the release. “But we have more work to do, and the Health Department is committed to ensuring everyone in Allegheny County has clean air to breathe.”
GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini agreed the fight to improve our air quality is far from over.
“The 2020 data are promising but we still have way too many days when foul odors and pollution from industrial sources make the air unhealthy to breathe. And our most vulnerable – children, the elderly, and those with heart and lung disease – suffer the most,” she said. “There are still a number of large sources in the County that lack necessary air quality permits and other sources that continue to flout air quality laws.”
Based on preliminary data from the department’s monitors, Allegheny County is attaining both the annual and 24-hour standards for PM2.5 for the first time since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for fine particulate matter in 1999. This represents a significant step in the county’s efforts to improve air quality for all residents. The data are being certified for submission to the EPA for approval.
ACHD operates nine air quality monitors that record PM2.5 readings – in Liberty, Avalon, Pittsburgh’s Manchester and Lawrenceville neighborhoods, South Fayette, Harrison, Clairton, North Braddock, and along the Parkway East. Air quality recorded at the Liberty monitor, located near U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, is the only monitor that has kept Allegheny County from attaining the EPA standard in recent years.
The EPA annual standard for PM2.5 is 12 micrograms per cubic meters (µg/m³), averaged over three years. The 24-hour standard is 35 µg/m³, which is also averaged over three years. The data for 2020 from the Liberty monitor shows an annual average of 9.8 µg/m³ and a 24-hour average of 27.2 µg/m³, resulting in three-year averages of 11.2 and 32, respectively, both below the federal standards required to reach attainment. The 9.8 µg/m³ annual average for 2020 also meets the World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guidelines of 10 µg/m³.
The county press release stated air quality was still on track to attain the federal standards in 2020 even without lower levels of pollution due to the pandemic, but staff attorney Ned Mulcahy was skeptical.
“Record low emissions coincided with a record surge in unemployment in 2020. Bars, restaurants, schools, amusement parks, theatres and numerous other establishments spent unintended time closed. I don’t see how pretending 2020 was a typical year for anything – including air pollution – is helpful to the analysis.”
“Plus,” he added, “Air quality in 2020 wasn’t exactly perfect.”
Although, the county’s press release correctly noted that sulfur dioxide “registered a record low of 44 ppb, 31 points below the 75 ppb standard,” that value was only true for the Liberty monitoring site. The 2020 value at the North Braddock monitor was 65 ppb, which represents an *increase* from the 2019 value of 59 ppb. There were also two exceedances of the 75 ppb standard at North Braddock in 2020.
In addition, double-digit violations of Pennsylvania’s 24-hour air quality standard for hydrogen sulfide continued in 2020 with a total of 26 exceedances at the Liberty monitor and two more at the North Braddock site, which only operated 22 days last year.
“Clearly, there’s still work to do. Now more than ever we need ACHD to use its regulatory authority to ensure the health and welfare of residents is paramount moving forward,” Filippini said. “The health department is working on a series of regulations right now – rules about things like coke oven gas and episodic weather events that impact air quality – that could significantly help ensure healthier air in Allegheny County. We hope the department and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald will do all they can to make sure those regulations are as stringent as possible.”
Editor’s Note: Here is some associated media coverage:
Allegheny County Meets All Federal Air Quality Standards for First Time Ever, published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For the First Time Ever, Allegheny County Meets Federal Air Quality Standards, published by State Impact
All Allegheny County Air Quality Monitors Meet Federal Standards, a First in Two Decades, published by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review