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Who Pays for Clean Air in Allegheny County? 10,000,000 Reasons to Join the Debate

In response to a projected budget shortfall in 2023, the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) has proposed changes to the way it funds its Air Quality Program – the county agency charged with enforcing and monitoring air quality standards.

Specifically, the changes would allow the Air Quality Program to:

  1. pay for some operational expenses with a larger contribution from the account that holds fines and penalties resulting from air quality violations – known as the Clean Air Fund – from 2023 through 2026, and

  2. recover costs associated with regulatory enforcement actions directly instead of including those amounts in fines paid to the Clean Air Fund.

ACHD is accepting public comments on the proposed changes through May 15 and we want the public to weigh in, but what might seem like a simple proposal is a bit messy, as we’ll explain.

Fully and reliably funding the government agency charged with improving and protecting our air quality is essential to public health – that is not open for debate. The messy part of the issue is the practical, political, nitty-gritty budgetary reality of paying that agency’s bills.

First, let’s narrow the issue somewhat: ACHD’s proposal to recoup enforcement costs is perfectly reasonable, fiscally responsible, and probably overdue. That part of the proposal isn’t why we’re writing.

The belle of the ball in this drama is the $10 million pot of cash earmarked for positive impacts on air quality: the Clean Air Fund.

And it is a drama.

This most recent proposal is just one installment in a long history – one GASP examined in depth – of the fund’s absent, irregular, curious, and/or inconsistent uses and management.

Of course, using the fines polluters pay to cover the costs of improving air quality feels like one logical option, but county and ACHD officials have pushed it as the only option, which isn’t true.

We put together this explainer to get you up to speed on the history of the Clean Air Fund and the current debate so you can have a voice in shaping how the Clean Air Fund can best make an impact locally.

Budgeting for Clean Air

ACHD’s Air Quality Program enforces local, state, and federal laws and standards. It has control over – and some discretion in – procedural details regarding permits it writes, rules it enforces, and how the agency interacts with the public. But where higher levels of government (like the U.S. Environmental Agency) make a clear demand concerning a particular detail, there is no question: Those requirements must be followed to the letter.

And that’s the case when it comes to funding the Air Quality Program’s work on larger air pollution sources in the county, so-called major sources like U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works. For these facilities, federal law requires that permitting and oversight be paid for entirely and exclusively by fees on these sources.

As for the rest of the Air Quality Program’s work, like permitting for smaller minor sources, air quality monitoring, regulatory enforcement, and outreach, the funding requirements are less clear.

Facilities classified as minor sources pay fees for permits and other services, but they are much lower than those assessed to major sources. The Air Quality Program receives grants from the EPA to cover some monitoring activities, but the funds don’t cover all the projects that might be useful, important, or relevant locally.

Other limited funding sources come up periodically, but in general, few consistent sources of income exist to cover the sorts of educational and outreach work that is important – even critical at times – to impacted communities.

One of those few sources is the county itself.

State law requires Allegheny County to “make such annual or supplemental appropriations as may be necessary for the operation of the county department of health,” but that is the extent of what the law says on the matter.

The source of those “appropriations” and exactly what operations are “necessary” are not clearly defined, can be open to interpretation, and move the discussion along perfectly.

Enter the Clean Air Fund

The county’s Air Pollution Control Regulations (also called Article 21) established the Clean Air Fund as a repository for fines and penalties assessed against polluters. This account is separate from the normal accounts holding operating funds, and must be used “to support activities related to the improvement of air quality within Allegheny County and to support activities which will increase or improve knowledge concerning air pollution, its causes, its effects, and the control thereof.”

While the Clean Air Fund is a separate account, it is not a stretch to think paying for Air Quality Program operations might be considered an activity “related to the improvement of air quality within Allegheny County.” In fact, Article 21 was amended in 2009 to allow the Air Quality Program to use “[a]n amount, no greater than 5 percent of the balance of the Clean Air Fund on December 31st of the previous calendar year,” to cover “normal operating costs.”

This means for the past 14 years if the Air Quality Program’s expenses exceeded its income, it could request a contribution from the Clean Air Fund up to 5% of the prior year’s balance. As a rough example, if the Clean Air Fund balance ended a year at $10 million, the Air Quality Program could request up to $500,000 the following year to balance its books.

Under the current proposal, ACHD would raise the current 5% cap to 25% but impose an absolute maximum in any given year of $1.25 million. In other words, if the year-end balance was $10 million, the Air Quality Program could only request $1.25 million; the full 25% would only come into play if a year-end balance was below $5 million.

If you’re not sure you love or hate the idea, we get it. We won’t fault anyone for thinking parts of the proposal make some sense.

As we thought more about it, we realized we needed more information about how the Clean Air Fund has been used over the years. So we did the research and it added some needed perspective.

History Matters

To better understand how the Clean Fund has been used over the years, GASP reviewed the minutes from Allegheny County Board of Health meetings from January 2003 through March 2023. We generated a report showing all approved Clean Air Fund expenditures and PDFs of all Board of Health minutes that aren’t already available online.

Honestly, it’s a lot to unpack. We came up with two insights for now:

First, it is important to understand that both before and after the 5% allocation became part of Article 21, the Air Quality Program applied for and received Clean Air Fund money for projects that fell under the general purpose uses of the Clean Air Fund.

From 2004 to 2009, the Board of Health approved $1 million for the Air Quality Program to employ an outside contractor to assist in issuing permits, plus another $840,000 to help generate an EPA-required plan to reach federal air quality standards (known as a SIP). From our perspective, these projects were essential, important “operations” of the Air Quality Program that the 5% allocation was meant to address.

However, from 2017 through 2020 the Board approved over $1.8 million from the Clean Air Fund for enforcement, staffing, monitoring, and software needs on top of more than $2.2 million in those yearly 5% allocations. That means the Clean Air Fund was providing $1 million per year over four years for Air Quality Program operations.

This matters because the proposed change has been presented as necessary to address a sudden budget phenomenon that requires immediate action. It appears to us there has been a need to address budget matters for quite a while.

Second, the board has approved millions in Clean Air Fund money for community-oriented projects aimed at outreach, education, and direct emissions reductions in some of the most impacted neighborhoods, but other projects have had minimal or no impacts, and the approach to picking these projects overall appears to have been – at best – hit or miss.

Past projects that GASP wildly support include:

  • studying asthma in high-pollution areas

  • projects to reduce gas-powered lawnmowers and wood-burning fireplaces

  • studying the impacts of hazardous air pollutants, and

  • retrofitting diesel engines for school buses and other heavy vehicles in impacted communities

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine how repairs and upgrades to the building housing the Air Quality Program improved air quality or educated the public. And even assuming the Board has the discretion to consider a (very) wide range of projects, the types, timing, and amounts of approved projects lack any order.

“We defy anyone to look at the history of Clean Air Fund projects and find a pattern. Good projects have been funded in the past, but the lack of a consistent approach is glaringly obvious,” GASP Executive Director Patrick Campbell said.

How - and Why - to Weigh In

GASP supports a well-funded Air Quality Program; our local air quality is far too abysmal far too often for anything less. We reject the suggestion that raiding the Clean Air Fund is the only way to achieve that goal.

As Allegheny County officials develop a 2024 budget, GASP is urging decision-makers, council members, and the many other important, unsung staff who influence county finances to do everything in their power to ensure the Air Quality Program gets the funding support it needs to properly safeguard our air and our health.

We hope they will also ask the hard questions necessary to get to the bottom of how it came to pass that the Air Quality Program – the only local agency empowered to and depended upon to protect air quality – can’t pay its bills.

In the meantime, it’s important that we take this opportunity to send a message to county and health department leaders that the Clean Air Fund must benefit the community.

Residents have two ways to weigh in: By submitting written comments or by testifying at a public hearing slated for 5:30 p.m. May 9 at the Clack Health Center.

Those who wish to present testimony at the hearing must register using ACHD’s Public Hearing Participation Form or by calling 412-578-8103. Please note: You must register no less than 24 hours in advance of the hearing and testimony is limited to three minutes.

Those who wish to provide written comments have until 4 p.m. on May 15 to submit them.

To simplify that task, GASP created this easy form that will route your comments straight to ACHD.

Need a little help getting started? We have you covered. In your comments we suggest you:

  • state your support for changes allowing the Air Quality Program to recoup direct costs associated with enforcement activities - it just makes good fiscal sense.

  • suggest that additional funding for the air quality program could - and should - come from county coffers moving forward, not the Clean Air Fund.

  • tell ACHD that Clean Air Fund money should be used for projects that help protect our health and environment, not as a resource to balance its budget.

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