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Same as It Ever Was: Killer Inversion in Pittsburgh Prompted Us to Call for Tighter Regs in '76, Too

Updated: Sep 14, 2022

U.S. Steel/Pittsburgh, 1970

The subject of atmospheric inversions—and the role they play in air pollution events that threaten public health—has been the focus of much attention recently.

Late last month, a prolonged inversion prevented air pollution from dissipating, resulting in local air quality exceeding the federal air quality standard for fine particulate matter six days in a row. During that same period, the region’s air quality exceeded the Pennsylvania state standard for hydrogen sulfide (H2S) eight days in a row.

The sustained poor air quality prompted warnings from state and local officials, and calls from GASP and others for the Allegheny County Health Department to establish procedures intended to stem industrial pollution not only during periods of bad weather, but every day through tighter coke oven regulations.

Seemingly in response to those calls to action, ACHD officials issued a press release last Thursday, announcing that it would work on plans to combat weather-related pollution events.

GASP strongly supports these efforts, but we feel it’s necessary to point out this isn’t the first time we and others have found ourselves advocating for stronger regulations to protect public health after a prolonged period of weather-exacerbated poor air quality.

No, GASP was not around during the infamous – and frequently mentioned last week – 1948 Donora smog incident that killed 20 people and sickened thousands more. We were, however, involved in the policy debates following an air pollution episode during November of 1975, to which an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study attributed 14 excess fatalities.

That episode garnered attention from top EPA officials as well as Congressional Committees, and resulted in the EPA issuing a 90-page report on the incident. After reviewing the timeline, data, and actions by all parties involved carefully, the EPA found that “under the circumstances, the agencies involved in the episode responded to it in an acceptable manner. Nonetheless, problems were encountered.”

The report noted that the County’s Bureau of Air Pollution Control (the forerunner of today’s Air Quality Program), “was unable to respond adequately to an episode of this severity because of inadequate or absent source curtailment plans,” which would have provided clear guidance on actions necessary to reduce emissions.

The EPA’s report noted one particularly glaring plan missing: “United States Steel is the major air pollution source in the Monongahela Valley, yet there was no approved curtailment plans for portions of its facilities on file with the County for various stages of air pollution episodes.”

In a 1976 press release responding to the EPA report, GASP blasted the Bureau on this issue, alleging that it had “surrendered to U.S. Steel pressure.” We wrote:

“The (Air Pollution Control) Bureau’s role is not to beg and plead for cut backs during an emergency but rather to implement specific curtailment plans agreed to by the source.”

GASP also called on county officials to restructure and tighten the levels at which alerts were issued as well as require industrial facilities like U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works to limit production during severe weather events such as inversions.

GASP further stated:

“U.S. Steel’s recalcitrance and the Bureau’s inadequacy must not be permitted to persist to the next emergency in Allegheny County. All sources must submit signed curtailment plans and sources which do not comply must be prosecuted.”

Our point? GASP is concerned that some recalcitrance and, perhaps, inadequate agency diligence have returned. Even assuming all required curtailment plans exist, the current “Episode Criteria” regulations date to 1995 or earlier and do not even include “Alert Values” for fine particulate matter. After decades of air quality issues in our region, the County must be proactive instead of reactive on the air quality front.

“We all deserve clean air and it’s ultimately ACHD’s responsibility to take the regulatory actions necessary to ensure we have it,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said. “While we look forward to working with the department to establish procedures to help prevent pollution events during inversions and other poor weather conditions, it’s equally imperative ACHD does what it promised and tighten up coke-oven regulations.”

She added: “We all know—or should know—that weather is not the issue here. Air pollution is. And the only way we’re going to improve our overall air quality is by ensuring that regulations governing our most pervasive industrial emissions sources are as strong as they can be. Historically, county officials have bent to the will of industry instead of making the necessary demands for curtailment during these weather events. We’d hoped that county officials would learn from their mistakes from more than 40 years ago, but here we are, asking for essentially the same things.”

P.S. Read the documents regarding the 1975 incident for yourself:

  1. The Allegheny County Air Pollution Episode, Nov. 16, 1975 – November 20, 1975,” a report issued by EPA

  2. Allegheny County Bureau of Air Pollution Control News Release,” a statement issued by Allegheny County officials critical of the EPA report

  3. Air Pollution Episode,” a report on the November 1975 event issued by the Allegheny County Bureau of Air Pollution Control

  4. Letter from U.S. Steel regarding its response to the November 1975 weather episode

  5. GASP Press Release

  6. GASP letter to the Allegheny County Bureau of Air Pollution regarding its response to the November 1975 weather episode

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