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GASP’s Christmas Wish? Clean Air for the Holiday (for the First Time in Three Years)

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

On Christmas Eve 2018 – a fire at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works disabled its air pollution controls designed to reduce sulfur content from escaping the facility. That fire led the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) to initially issue an enforcement order against U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works for continued Article XXI permit violations for daily sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions after the Dec. 24 fire. 

As you may recall, while Pittsburgh did get a white Christmas last year, it was because of smog, not snow: A days-long inversion trapped air pollution, not allowing it to disperse. The result was six days in a row of hydrogen sulfide exceedances at the Liberty monitor and five straight days where concentrations of fine particulate matter exceeded federal health-based standards.

The incidents led to a sharper focus on two much-needed regulation updates: Those governing coke ovens and those regarding episodic weather events. 

Fortunately, ACHD has made progress with both of these regulations over the past year. The draft coke oven regulations are now in public comment, and GASP’s attorneys are   in the process of analyzing them and composing comments we will share with you as soon as they are complete.

Progress on those episodic weather regulations aren’t as far down the line, though – there’s no chance that they will be approved this year, as Pittsburgh enters a new inversion season.

That means that if the Pittsburgh region is hit with another days-long period of poor air dispersion, ACHD officials won’t have the authority to order companies that produce air pollution to dial down production or otherwise stem industrial emissions.

“We totally get it: Regulations take time,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said. “But while the health department might not have the legal authority to demand industry curtail emissions right now, they are within their right – and responsibility – to provide the public they serve with as much advance notice of these events as possible. They can also explicitly urge industry to take the same mitigation efforts they ask residents to take.”

While ACHD did provide notice during the last days-long inversion last month, it only did so after the bad air had passed.

“Meteorologists let the audience know before a thunderstorm hits so people know to bring an umbrella to help protect them from the rain,” Filippini said. “ACHD needs to take a similar approach and let people know of a potential bad air day sooner rather than later so they can take similar precautions. As we know, children in the Mon Valley are three times as likely to suffer from asthma – so this is a very real issue to the people living near industrial sources of air pollution.”

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