Updated: Dec 12, 2022
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now accepting applications from state, local, and tribal air agencies for grant funding to assist them in conducting air quality monitoring projects of hazardous air pollutants (also called air toxics).
Given that Allegheny County residents in several communities live and work uncomfortably close to known sources of air toxics, GASP is calling on the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) to pursue funding through this program.
At present, the only federal requirements for monitoring ambient air quality cover the six “criteria” pollutants: particulate matter, lead, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and ground-level ozone. Air toxics are controlled and monitored at their source through regulation of industries, vehicles, etc. The EPA tracks those emissions and estimates ambient air concentrations but even the EPA admits the system is not perfect:
“Emissions data are one way we can attribute HAP exposures to specific sources. On the other hand, ambient monitoring data allow us to continually evaluate and improve our models and inventories, to deal credibly with the difficult issue of background HAP concentrations, and to measure progress more directly.”
Simply monitoring for potentially dozens of different pollutants randomly could be a waste of resources. To address that issue, the new EPA grant program encourages a targeted approach.
The EPA press release announcing the grant program states that the agency is awarding up to $5 million from this competitive program to fund projects that fall into one of four categories:
Characterizing the impacts of air toxics in a community (community-scale monitoring);
Assessing the impacts of air toxics emissions from specific sources (near-source monitoring);
Evaluating new and emerging testing methods for air toxics; and
Analyzing existing air toxics data and developing or enhancing analytical, modeling, and/or implementation tools.
Agencies applying for the air toxics monitoring grants may partner with or provide “subgrants” to other organizations for their monitoring projects. The EPA expects to award as many as 20 projects and no grant will exceed $750,000.
Air toxics are linked to cancer or other serious health effects. Under the Clean Air Act, EPA regulates 187 listed air toxic pollutants. While grant applications may address any air toxic pollutant, air toxics of particular interest to EPA in this competition include ethylene oxide, chloroprene, benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and metals such as hexavalent chromium, nickel, and arsenic.
GASP believes this grant opportunity could fund monitoring of two particular air toxics of concern locally: benzene and manganese.
While there is no EPA requirement to monitor benzene near coke facilities, ACHD does so at its Liberty Monitor site, which is about a mile north-northeast of—and typically downwind of—Clairton Coke Works.
That air quality monitor data show concentrations of benzene well below Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) workplace safety levels, but still above acceptable risk levels for ambient air.
The average benzene concentration at the Liberty Monitor was very close to 1 part per billion (ppb) over the past year. The EPA has calculated this level to potentially cause one in 100,000 excess cases of cancer, but the World Health Organization states that as a carcinogen, “no safe level of exposure (to benzene) can be recommended.”
These are important reasons why ACHD should want to seek funding for more robust benzene monitoring through the EPA grant program.
GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said that a framework for such monitoring already exists: The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) last year began monitoring benzene near the now-shuttered Erie Coke Corp.
The DEP’s approach to monitoring followed an existing and required EPA protocol for monitoring benzene near petroleum refineries. Despite the closure of that coke plant, DEP will continue monitoring efforts there through this year. Preliminary data already show an improvement in air quality since the plant discontinued operations at its facility in Erie.
“Hopefully, DEP’s benzene air monitoring program will work as a template for similar data collection in Allegheny County,” she said. “Since a framework is already in place, it might not be that heavy of a lift for ACHD officials to put together a proposal worthy of these EPA grant dollars.”
In addition to benzene monitoring, Filippini said there might also be an opportunity for more comprehensive monitoring of manganese, which can be a neurotoxin when inhaled – one that can potentially cause cognitive impairment, mood disturbances, and impaired memory, balance, and coordination.
ACHD already monitors for manganese at McConway & Torley (M&T) in Lawrenceville. Since U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works emits 32 times more manganese than M&T, it would make sense for the Allegheny County Health Department to monitor around the E.T. facility and this EPA grant could potentially help it do just that.
“These are two concrete examples of how health department officials could take advantage of this tremendous opportunity to more robustly monitor air pollution locally,” Filippini said. “The pollutants we are talking about are a known carcinogen and neurotoxin. Having a better handle on the sources and processes that are creating these pollutants and then, in turn, working to reduce them is the kind of work the Air Quality Program needs be doing.”
“We all know that poor air quality has long given a black eye to Allegheny County. We hope ACHD will take seriously this grant opportunity, which could potentially pay for hundreds of thousands of dollars in air toxics monitoring.”