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Improvements Needed for Southwestern PA Air Monitoring

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

In Southwestern Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) each operate a network of air quality monitoring stations. Federal regulations provide a number of technical requirements covering the air quality monitors themselves and require that the monitoring networks meet three basic objectives:

1. provide air pollution data to the general public in a timely manner; 2. support compliance with ambient air quality standards; and 3. support air pollution research studies.

GASP believes that monitoring air quality is one of these agencies’ most important tasks because it informs and protects the public. The box on the right side of our homepage, showing current air quality conditions for Pittsburgh, is informed by data from ACHD’s and DEP’s monitoring efforts.

To further the goal of public education in this area, GASP has recently added a feature to our permit clearinghouse map: showing all of the air quality monitoring stations in Southwestern Pennsylvania. It’s not by chance that there is a great deal of air quality monitoring sites near concentrations of industrial activity. As noted above, compliance is also an important part of DEP’s and ACHD’s monitoring activities.

The Clean Air Act requires each state and local authority to submit an annual report to the EPA describing how it monitors ambient air quality. Although both agencies appear to operate the minimum number of air quality monitoring sites required, GASP’s comments on the ACHD and DEP plans noted several areas where we believe the agencies should be doing more to protect public health:

1. Monitoring near oil and gas operations

The task of monitoring, researching, and analyzing air quality around oil and gas operations should be one of DEP’s most fundamental roles as the industry expands in Pennsylvania. For years, citizens have raised air quality concerns and the DEP has admitted that it needs additional monitoring data to properly characterize the risks associated with emissions from these sites. Yet, DEP has failed to implement additional air quality monitoring and must now do so as soon as possible.

2. Monitoring fine particulates (PM2.5)

Part of DEP’s oil and gas monitoring plan that it has yet to implement includes monitoring for fine particulate matter near oil and gas operations. Although PM2.5 is only one of several emissions from these sites, this data would help them characterize a host of risks associated with the facilities themselves.

In Allegheny County, monitoring for fine particulate matter is essential because the County struggles to meet national ambient air quality standards for this pollutant. Of special concern are emissions from diesel engines and how those contaminants increase in the downtown Pittsburgh area during the morning and evening rush hours. In the coming months, ACHD will be issuing new guidelines aimed at lowering particulate matter concentrations for the entire region. Expansion of monitoring efforts will be critical to ensure that the entire county comes into compliance with the national standard.

3. Sulfur Dioxide

Largely due to our region’s continued reliance on coal for power plants and industrial processes, several areas in Southwestern Pennsylvania have elevated levels of sulfur dioxide. Specifically, the Liberty-Clairton area in Allegheny County, a portion of Beaver County along the Ohio River, and all of Indiana County suffer from this issue. Sulfur dioxide causes wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. Although the law allows the use of mathematical models to show how sources will comply with emissions limitations, GASP has urged ACHD and DEP to increase the use of air quality monitors to ensure that sulfur dioxide levels in towns and neighborhoods near these sources are within safe levels.

–Ned Mulcahy, Staff Attorney

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