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GASP to Board of Health: Task ACHD with Creating Crisis Comms Plan, Convene Dormant Subcommittees

GASP Executive Director Patrick Campbell on Wednesday implored members of the Allegheny County Board of Health to use their authority to task Air Quality Program leadership with developing a crisis communications plan for when permitted facilities experience outages and/or fires that impact - or are reasonably expected to impact - our ambient air.

Campbell also reiterated GASP’s call for the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) to convene long-dormant subcommittees dedicated to air quality monitoring as well as pollution prevention and education.

GASP began calling for ACHD’s Air Quality Program leadership to create such a crisis communications plan in the wake of high-profile events at two permitted facilities this year - one at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works (an outage that necessitated flaring) and the other at Metalico Recycling (a raging fire that caused massive plumes of smoke and major public outcry).

Here are his full comments:

Good afternoon. My name is Patrick Campbell. I am the executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), a nonprofit organization working to improve our region’s air quality since 1969.

Over the years there have been numerous high-profile air quality emergencies at facilities permitted by ACHD that fouled our local air quality. The most recent example is the September fire at Metalico Recycling on Neville Island.

Noxious emissions from those events impacted - and frankly, frightened - folks across the county. Yet, information about these incidents and the emissions they created was hard to come by in real-time.

To our dismay, in many of these situations, the Allegheny County Health Department’s messaging was late and inadequate, noting only that a fire occurred and that PM2.5 levels did not exceed regulatory limits.

But this lack of real-time, health-based messaging is just one symptom of ACHD’s transparency sickness. GASP has also noted a steady decrease in access to real communication with ACHD leadership and staff over the past year.

Specifically, we’ve noted fewer opportunities for residents to interact with ACHD to discuss air quality issues - two of three subcommittees of the Air Advisory Board have failed to convene for MONTHS.

To build trust with residents, ACHD must increase transparency, which is why GASP is calling on Air Quality Program leadership to convene existing subcommittee meetings to provide opportunities for residents to interact with the Air Quality Program for updates and discussion about everything from monitoring projects and regulations in the works to public education and outreach initiatives.

We again implore you to use your authority as members of the Board of Health to task ACHD with creating a crisis communications plan and articulate how it will alert residents via the Allegheny Alert system and social media platforms during fires, outages, or other emergencies at a permitted facility that has - or can reasonably be expected - to impact local air quality and public health.

Thank you.

GASP will keep you posted on all this. In the meantime, here’s what else happened at the meeting:

ACHD Interim Director Patrick Dowd provided the board with several air quality-related updates. Here’s what we learned by attending the meeting:

  • The Air Quality Program will be moving its offices from the Clack Campus in Lawrenceville to a new location on Fulton Street in the North Side.

  • ACHD has issued more than 700 asbestos permit inspections so far this year. More than 500 asbestos permits have been issued since the beginning of the year.

  • ACHD recently debuted a new emissions inventory dashboard that the county issued a press release about 30 minutes prior to the BOH meeting. You can read that press release here. The department also made upgrades to its legal docket software, which can be viewed here.

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