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Wildfire Impacts Spotlight Deficiencies in How Air Quality Agencies Inform & Warn the Public

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

Last week the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued a series of occasionally color-coded warnings, watches, and alerts as waves of smoke from Canadian wildfires descended upon, passed very nearby, or lingered around communities in southwestern Pennsylvania.

If you found it all a bit confusing, that makes two of us.

While a sliver of good news is that air quality was much less poor locally than it was in areas farther east, two facts remain:

  1. At times, air quality was poor, and

  2. At times, the messages conveyed to the public did not explain the situation clearly or accurately.

Thanks to a host of factors, air quality in our area will continue to experience bad spells and the solutions are not simple. At the same time, improving how air quality agencies inform, warn, and educate the public can and must be improved quickly.

To help the public decipher what they were reading last week and make some of the agencies’ deficiencies clear to those agencies, we put together this Q&A:

First things first: How bad did air quality get locally?

It was bad, but we’ve seen worse. Based on averages of hourly data, air quality exceeded the daily federal health-based standard for fine particulates (PM2.5) at five of ACHD's six monitoring sites at some point on June 6 and 7. Air quality wasn’t great pretty much all week.

Were all the warnings justified?

Absolutely. Even on days when air quality wasn’t ideal but ended up within the federal standard, various models and forecasts showed the potential for conditions to deteriorate in a hurry.

Example: On June 7, the average PM2.5 concentrations across southwest Pennsylvania ended the day at around 30 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3). That includes a DEP monitoring site in Johnstown. In Altoona, the daily average was 75 ug/m3, and in State College, the daily average was 125.

It would not have taken much of a shift in the wind to push those numbers into our area.

Justified or not, why did the warning, watch, and action messages change terminology so often?

The answer involves both geography and who is in charge.

Messages addressing a Mon Valley Watch or Mon Valley Warning relate specifically to an ACHD regulation designed to address periods of poor air quality referred to as episodes.

The Mon Valley Episode Rule requires companies that emit PM2.5 to take certain actions when poor air quality is in the forecast and more actions when air quality exceeds the EPA standard. GASP put together a detailed explanation of the rule that you can read more about here.

Both ACHD and DEP can declare Air Quality Action Days, but ACHD can only declare them for all or parts of Allegheny County; DEP can declare them statewide. These declarations are usually color-coded to reflect the expected poor air quality.

These colors correspond to the EPA’s AQI color-coding and messaging for informing the public about the severity of conditions, health risks associated with those conditions, and actions people could take to minimize risk.

We noticed some ACHD messages sent via Allegheny Alerts mentioned DEP Action Day determinations but some didn’t. We think this might be related to the specific messages users signed up to receive, but we aren’t sure and will work on finding an answer.

Why didn’t ACHD messages mention the EPA’s AirNow system?

We have no idea.

Last week, messages and outreach from the DEP, EPA, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), National Weather Service (NWS), and PA Emergency Management Agency – to name just a few – encouraged people to utilize EPA’s AirNow forecasts, maps, and real-time conditions tracking as a way to reduce exposure to harmful pollutants.

The AirNow system is not perfect. The real-time conditions (called the NowCast AQI) are the product of an algorithm that heavily weighs the most recent few hours – meaning it isn’t exactly real-time. Another concern is that it bases the color-coding and warning messages on PM2.5 levels associated with a 24-hour average.

Still, it is an invaluable tool for anyone interested in avoiding high levels of air pollution. ACHD’s refusal or failure to share and promote it is troubling.

Ironically, at a conference in Delaware County on June 8, the DEP proudly touted the benefits of paying attention to AirNow (check it out - the clip is 3.5 minutes total, starting at 4:07:00 -

Suffice it to say this is a topic we’ll address again. Stay tuned.

EPA. DEP. ACHD. It’s all bureaucratic alphabet soup to me. Who exactly is in charge?

All three agencies play a role. Here’s the breakdown:

ACHD operates all monitoring stations in Allegheny Count, reports the results to EPA hourly, and adds local expertise to outreach and forecasts.

The DEP operates monitoring stations statewide except for in Allegheny County and Philadelphia (which also has its own health department), it also reports the results to EPA hourly, and issues statewide air quality forecasts.

The EPA sets standards and has a platform for nationwide reporting of air quality data.

What last week highlighted was that three agencies taking three approaches to outreach only ensures confusion. And in that confusion, people suffer or are put at unreasonable risk of suffering.

ACHD didn’t share EPA messages. DEP messages didn’t mention Allegheny County nuances. In a modern, connected world, such things are objectively, patently, embarrassingly, and completely absurd. The public needs consistent, regular, accessible messaging, something that - with a little effort - these agencies could deliver.

Was the campfire I had last week illegal?

If you were in Allegheny County, yes. Wood burning is prohibited in any of the municipalities covered by a Mon Valley Watch or Warning when such a Watch or Warning is declared. Wood burning is also prohibited in any portion of the county under an Air Quality Action Day declaration.

If you were anywhere else in western Pennsylvania, having a campfire wasn’t a great idea, but legal.

What’s the chance of the situation improving?

We are optimistic, but change will take some effort. Based on decades of experience reinforced by a few very positive interactions we had last week with staff at the relevant agencies, we know dedicated caring people are working on these issues.

Unfortunately, agency staff are not able – physically and/or fiscally – to accomplish everything they’d like to. Sometimes they only can accomplish what decision-makers higher up in the chain of command deem is most important. We also know that opportunities for the public to provide feedback to those decision-makers are limited.

Here in Allegheny County, these opportunities existed in the form of ACHD Air Pollution Control Advisory subcommittees. Unfortunately, after many years of consistent by-monthly meetings, two of those three subcommittees - one dedicated to pollution prevention and education and the other to monitoring - have not convened in months. The ACHD website indicates that the next meeting date for those subcommittees is TBA.

We’re working to get answers and action on when the public can expect these meetings. Stay tuned - we’ll keep you posted.

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