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GASP Joins Residents at District 8 Community Listening Session on Air Quality

The Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) was proud to join residents this week at a community listening session on air quality hosted by Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Erika Strassburger – an event designed to provide Pittburghers the opportunity to speak out and tell their personal stories regarding air pollution.

GASP’s executive director, Rachel Filippini, made remarks at the event, which was held at Repair the World Pittsburgh Wednesday night. In case you missed it, here are Rachel’s full comments:

“Good evening, my name is Rachel Filippini and I’m the executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution (or GASP).  We’ve worked for 50 years to improve air quality in southwestern Pennsylvania. 

While significant environmental improvements have been made in many areas, the Pittsburgh region continues to struggle with significant health threatening air pollution.  

Thank you to Councilwoman Strassburger for organizing this listening session and for shining a light on this important issue. 

What do we know? We know Pittsburgh ranks as one of the top 10 most-polluted cities in the nation in regard to year-round particle pollution. Fine particles which are linked to everything from asthma attacks to heart attacks and strokes, cancer, and premature death.

We know Allegheny County ranks in the top 2 percent of counties in the United State for cancer risk from air pollution. We knowchildhood asthma rates in some Allegheny County schools are double the state average.  

We know air pollution makes people sick, shortens lives, and negatively impacts quality of life. New research shows air pollution also affects us socially through decreased productivity, school attendance, and lifetime earnings.  

As you are certainly aware there has been a flurry of recent media coverage focusing on the multiple, recent fires at United States Steel’s Clairton Coke Works and the ensuing pollution created. If one positive thing has come out of these fires, it is that it has sparked community engagement on the issue of air quality. Community members are rightfully concerned about the fires, but I believe the anger, anxiety, and frustration we are hearing is the result of residents enduring decades of air pollution while seeing enforcement of law that has – to date – proven ineffective.

The fight for clean air can’t come from citizens alone. We need – we depend – on our local and state leaders to look out for us, to pass strong laws and regulations that protect public and environmental health, and to raise a fuss when those laws aren’t being enforced.  

So, what can Pittsburgh City Council do?

Speak out. Air pollution is a regional problem that needs a regional solution. Pollution from Clairton Coke Works doesn’t just affect Clairton and the Mon Valley – it affects us all. The pollutants and their associated odors know no boundaries. Currently, the Health Department of Allegheny County Air Quality Program is reviewing Allegheny County’s coke over regulations to see where they can be strengthened to reduce hydrogen sulfide and its rotten egg odor. When this goes out to public comment, we need you to let your constituents know about this and speak out yourself.

Know the stationary sources in your own community. You can find them by going to GASP’s Air Quality Permits Clearinghouse. By knowing your own sources, you can be aware of whether or not their permits are current or expired, can find out if hearings are scheduled, and be better able to provide information to your constituents.  

Help reduce diesel pollution in Pittsburgh. Diesel particulate matter is one of the greatest inhaled air toxic cancer risks in the region. In 2016, Pittsburgh City Council passed legislation to clean up construction projects in Pittsburgh. This important law finally went into effect earlier this year with the Duck Hollow construction project. While we are pleased that the City’s clean construction implementation is finally a reality, because it only applies to city-funded projects, it has a limited impact. The Urban Redevelopment Authority announced that they will adopt a similar clean construction policy. Now, we need other authorities, which many city council members are a part of, and institutions to pass and enforce their own policies.  Using clean construction equipment needs to become the norm and not the exception.  

You can also ensure your constituents know that there is a diesel idling law in Pennsylvania that restricts heavy duty on-road diesel vehicles to five minutes of idling.  The police can and should enforce this law but rarely do.  You must encourage them to.

City council should take other steps to move away from diesel emissions to electrification.  There is funding out there.  Let’s go after it to clean up as many vehicles and equipment as possible. 

In addition to the many stationary and mobile sources of pollution fouling our air, residential wood burning is also an issue we often hear concerns about. Allegheny County has an open burning regulation but it is rarely enforced because the health department does not see it as a public nuisance unless multiple people on a street are calling and complaining about it.  Local municipalities can be more stringent when it comes to open burning and the City of Pittsburgh should consider this in light of the many complaints received.  

What other steps can Pittsburgh take? Can you do more on predicted poor air quality days or predicted poor air dispersion days to reduce pollution?  For instance, can you incentivize using public transport on those days?  Can you ensure there is better coordination between city planning, environmental services, parks and recreation, and transportation and engineering — making sure there is always an eye towards emission reduction? What other best practices to combat air pollution can Pittsburgh adopt?  Now is the time to be exploring and implementing those practices. 

There is a lot to love about the Pittsburgh region. We have top-rated universities, world-class health care, abundant cultural and natural amenities, and winning sports teams.  Unfortunately, air quality is not something Pittsburghers love or brag about.  Let’s attack our air pollution problem like we would any other public health threat.

Thank you for your time. “

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