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Local Nonprofits Awarded Nearly $500K EPA Grant to Enhance Citizen Air Monitoring Network

Local residents routinely wake up to some of the worst air quality in the country and have logged nearly 70,000 complaints since the 2016 launch of Carnegie Mellon University’s crowd-sourcing app SmellPGH describing noxious odors and associated physical symptoms ranging from itchy eyes and throats to headaches and breathing difficulties.

Despite regulatory air quality monitors and a growing network of citizen-owned low-cost sensors, data gaps still exist making it difficult for residents to know exactly what pollutants they’re inhaling - an environmental justice issue seven local nonprofits are teaming up to help solve thanks to a nearly $500,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The project was one of four grants awarded totaling nearly $2 million to groups in southwestern Pennsylvania to enhance ambient air quality monitoring in communities that are underserved, historically marginalized, and overburdened by pollution.

The initiatives will expand existing citizen research and monitoring initiatives in the region and are among 132 across 37 states to receive part of $53.4 million in funding through the federal Inflation Reduction Act and American Rescue Plan to enhance air quality monitoring in communities across the United States.

"This is such tremendous news for the region and comes in the wake of a prolonged air pollution episode that had Allegheny County residents breathing poor air for nearly half the month of October," GASP Executive Director Patrick Campbell said. "This funding will allow advocates, residents, and air quality experts together and use their combined time and talent to fill in some of these monitoring gaps and arm folks with the data they need to identify pollutants of concern in their communities and engage with policymakers to help improve conditions in their neighborhoods.”

Over the next three years, GASP, along with Allegheny County Clean Air Now, the Birmingham/Uptown Clean Air Group, Breathe Project, Clean Water Fund, CREATE Lab, Protect Elizabeth Township, and Valley Clean Air Now will use the EPA funding to install dozens of low-cost air monitors to measure concentrations of pollutants like particulate matter and volatile organic compounds.

The groups will also take and analyze air samples during “smell events” reported by the SmellPGH app to determine what exactly what pollutants residents were exposed to during these episodes of poor air quality.

"We really want to make the most of this chance to demonstrate the benefits of holistically analyzing data from a spectrum of monitoring technology, including qualitative tools like SmellPGH which can offer insights into where and when people are being exposed to harmful air pollution,” CREATELab’s Ana Hoffman explained. “We want to set this method of data inclusivity as a precedent for EPA."

The monitors will be deployed in environmental justice communities across our region - from communities in the Mon Valley and Pittsburgh to river valley towns like Donora and Neville Island.

"Air monitoring will greatly enhance the capabilities of communities to understand and address pollution events throughout the region, protecting the health of residents in the process," Breathe Project Executive Director Matt Mehalik said.

Karen Grzywinski of Allegheny County Clean Air Now agreed and said she is hopeful the funding will help provide answers to residents in and around the Neville Island area who have long wondered what’s in their air.

“Our health department has referred to Neville Island as a pollution "hot spot" in Allegheny County - second only to Clairton Coke Works,” she said. “It's time we identified what residents are being exposed to and what industries are responsible.”

Myron Arnowitt Pennsylvania Director at Clean Water Action said his group is excited to get started and hoped community members would rally around the project.

"Residents living near industrial plants know the best when pollution is bad, where it is bad, and what kind of illnesses are in the community,” he said. “We urge Mon Valley residents to get involved in these local efforts to find out what's contaminating the air our families breathe every day.”

Scott Taylor of Protect Elizabeth Township said the funding will help complement and supplement existing community air monitoring in their corner of Allegheny County and that they look forward to sharing collected data with the community for feedback and concerns.

“As a small grassroots group, we are very proud to have the largest monitoring program spanning Allegheny County and into the Mon Valley. Our monitors are provided free to the community and this funding will allow us to further develop and expand our existing air monitoring network and add to our current data collection,” he said.

Read the full list of grantees here.

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