Updated: Sep 14
The Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) joined environmental groups and droves of residents Friday to send a clear message to the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) that it needs to take action to strengthen coke oven regulations and take steps to hold U.S. Steel and other polluters accountable when industrial emissions and weather events such as inversions combine, tanking local air quality.
About 100 people attended the rally held at the Pittsburgh City-County Building just before the Allegheny County Board of Health was slated to meet. The demonstration came in the wake of an eight-day stretch of terrible air quality.
GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini spoke at the rally and then again at the board of health meeting. Here are her remarks:
Good afternoon, my name is Rachel Filippini and I’m the executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution. Thank you for the opportunity to speak today.
Late last year the County was marred by eight days of unrelenting air pollution. Once again, county residents were forced to endure air pollution serious enough to land the Liberty-Clairton area at the top of the nation’s list of cities with the worst air quality.
ACHD’s initial statement on the issue blamed the weather and merely reassured the public that U.S. Steel’s facilities were operating within permit limits. Even under normal operations, however, US Steel is permitted to literally emit tons of pollution each year. So, to be clear, this was – and is – in no way reassuring.
We know prolonged inversions prevent air pollution from dissipating, but they certainly don’t create pollution. ACHD cannot control the weather – or use it as a pollution-control tool – but ACHD can control emissions.Ultimately, what we need is for ACHD to act quickly to establish a comprehensive plan to address what is essentially a two-fold problem.
First, the department must put a procedure in place to protect public health when weather conditions combine with industrial air pollution to tank local air quality, as it did over the Christmas holiday.And in fact, ACHD announced such a plan last week, stating it would explore new regulations that would impose corrective action requirements on industry during short-term pollution events.
GASP welcomed the news that ACHD wants to take steps to address this problem, but we were troubled that ACHD asserted that its “current regulations do not provide options to address this issue.” ACHD has had an entire chapter on “Air Pollution Episodes” on the books for many years. Those regulations “provide (ACHD) with the authority to decrease the severity and duration of air pollution episodes by requiring staged reduction in the emissions of air contaminants.”
GASP believes ACHD was limited in its response to the most recent air pollution episode not because of a lack of regulations, but because ACHD failed to update most of these regulations over the last 25 years. The current criteria for defining an air pollution episode doesn’t even list an action level for PM2.5.
Given the history of pollution episodes locally and ACHD’s acknowledgement that climate change will magnify the problem, ACHD must provide the public with a clear plan of action and a timeline addressing when the Air Quality Program will start working on this issue.The second action necessary is that ACHD must revise and strengthen the County’s coke-oven regulations. This is necessary to combat fugitive emissions of air pollutants like hydrogen sulfide every day.
Air pollution near the Clairton Coke facility is not just a weather-driven anomaly; it is a year-round burden on local residents. The midnight-to-midnight, 24-hour average concentration of hydrogen sulfide at ACHD’s Liberty monitor mathematically exceeded the state air quality standard 46 times in 2019.
Although exceedances occurred in clusters near the February and December inversion events last year, at least one such exceedance occurred in all 12 months of 2019. Clearly, we have both an acute and chronic air pollution problem that needs to be addressed.
We all deserve clean air and it’s ultimately ACHD’s responsibility to take the regulatory actions necessary to ensure we have it. Thank you.
Here are links to associated media coverage of today’s events:
Allegheny County Residents Demand Action on Air Pollution, published by Public News Service
Clairton Residents, Activists Protest Air Pollution, published by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Allegheny County Residents Rally for Better Clean Air Enforcement, published by the Tribune-Review
Photos: Clean Air Rally Calls for Change, published by Pittsburgh Current
Dozens Gather Downtown to Protest Poor Air Quality in Allegheny County, published by CityPaper
Amid Rally for Air Quality Action, U.S. Steel Commits to Work with Health Department, published by Pittsburgh Business Times
The Glimpse, Published by PublicSource
Residents Press Allegheny County to Do More for Air Quality, published by WESA
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