Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 8-Part Pollution Series & GASP’s Comments

On 12/12/10, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette began an 8-part series on air pollution. The reports are far-ranging and bring many of our concerns to the wide audience of the Post’s readership.  Links to the articles can be found here, as well as GASP’s comments on several of the articles.

12/12/10, “The Region at Risk,” and GASP’s comments:

12/12/10–”Mapping Mortality: Region at Risk,” the start of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s 8-part air pollution series, cuts through a lot of smoke.  Authors Don Hopey and David Templeton bring many important points to light.  The article focuses on the dangers of PM2.5, toxic particles which are too small to be seen.  Since they’re microscopic, it’s no wonder many southwest PA residents are unaware of our PM2.5 problem.  But microscopic doesn’t mean harmless.  These particles inflame asthma, carry carcinogens and heavy metals into organs, and lead to clots that cause strokes and heart attacks.

By using the Post’s interactive map, one can quickly see that higher rates of heart, lung, and respiratory disease are spread out in hot spots all over southwestern PA.  Perhaps this will finally squelch the myth that all the evidence of Pittsburgh’s poor air quality is based on the “unrepresentative” Liberty monitor?

The article also puts a lot of blame on coal-fired power plants, and rightly so.  Coal plants will only be as clean as we force them to be. So we need strong leadership, on all levels.  We need the EPA to keep tightening air emission limits, not delaying.  PA DEP and local air permitting agencies like the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) need to use their authority to minimize emissions, and address violations promptly and effectively.  ACHD’s responsibility is safeguarding human health, not promoting economic growth.  Regardless, clean air is essential for both a healthy population and a healthy economy.  Americans used to associate belching smokestacks with prosperity, but it’s not 1890 anymore.  Our region’s current and future prosperity is and must continue to be built on education, innovation, and environmentally responsible industry.  PA is 2nd in the nation for jobs in the solar industry–can we keep it up?  Can we keep improving?  We need our leaders to pass, and enforce, laws and regulations that attract new citizens and businesses, not placate old polluters.  Southwestern PA is a great place to live, but how many people considering a move to Pittsburgh will read this series and look elsewhere?

Coal will eventually run out.  Solar, water, and wind power won’t.  But until we reach the renewable future, we need coal plants to be cleaner.  We need our officials to lead us to that better future.  And we need you to make sure it happens.  Write letters, make calls, join GASP or another air quality organization, and demand what is your right–clean, healthy air.

12/13/10, “‘Clusters’ of Death”

12/14/10, “Challenging the Plants,” and GASP’s comments:

12/14/10–In reference to the Post’s 3rd batch of articles in their air pollution series, allow GASP to take a cue from Chevron’s recent controversial ad campaign and say: “We agree.”

We agree that fines paid by almost all coal-fired power plants in our region, for violations of their air or water permits, have done little to stop the violations.  Polluters just add in the small fines as another business cost, like paper clips or printer ink.

We agree that delays in enforcement of existing laws and regulations have slowed improvement to our polluted air.

We agree with the EPA’s decision to review operations at all coal-fired power plants in our region, and that the EPA should take action to reduce emissions.

We agree with Rep. David Levdansky—he shouldn’t have to be “leaning on” the PA DEP for it to aggressively pursue violations.  We agree with Philip Johnson, a senior officer with the Heinz Endowments’ Environment Program, when he says that state enforcement isn’t strong enough.  And we agree with PA DEP Secretary John Hanger, that fines alone aren’t working to stop violations.  Sometimes it takes threats of or actual litigation.

Lawsuits have been filed against many of these plants in recent years.  Several months ago GASP reached an agreement with RRI Energy (now GenOn) that requires lower permissible lead emissions, an increase in stack testing frequency, and data on lead amounts in the coal they burn, for their coal-fired Cheswick plant in Springdale.  While we were pleased with this particular agreement, this area continues to have many air quality challenges that need to be addressed.  According to the Post’s interactive map, Springdale Township is more than 50% above the national average for heart disease deaths.

For decades, the Allegheny County Health Department had been underestimating PM2.5 emissions from Clairton Coke Works by more than 11 times.  This Thursday, GASP will deliver comments on the proposed revision to the Liberty/Clairton State Implementation Plan (SIP). The SIP is ACHD’s road map to cleaner air, but GASP is not convinced that all homes in the area will find their air within legal limits of pollution—and even tighter standards are coming from the EPA soon.  Click here to learn how you can deliver comments.

GASP has been working in Clairton for years.  In 2005, GASP proposed a county regulation which passed in 2007.  The regulation allows data from Continuous Opacity Monitors (COMs) inside various smokestacks to be used to enforce opacity standards.  Enforcement of this regulation has led to drastic drops in opacity violations in Clairton Coke’s Battery B.  Click here to read more.

Citizens can become monitors themselves by becoming certified visible emissions readers, or Smoke Readers.  Our Smoke Readers receive free training on how to understand what’s coming from a smokestack and how to report violations.  Reports by our readers have led to fines and mandated operational changes.  The next training is in early April. Click here to learn more.

In all, the numbers produced by the Post’s article today make one wonder if these industries can ever be “good neighbors.”  While certain plants have made major investments in new pollution controls, our area still ranks as one of the nation’s most polluted—and these plants continue to rack up violations.  Please consider joining GASP today and help us keep these facilities accountable.

12/15/10, “Wind and Terrain”

12/16/10, “A Debate over Disposal,” and GASP’s comments:

12/16/10–Little Blue Run is a huge coal ash reservoir that straddles the Pennsylvania/West Virginia border to Pittsburgh’s west.  Penn Power advertised in 1975 that it would be a recreational lake, with boating and picnicking.   But depending on the time of year, the reservoir changes from neon blue, to gunmetal gray, to snow white.   No one goes there to water ski on the sandy sludge or spend a leisurely Sunday afternoon.  (Watch a short video about Little Blue and coal ash here.)

It was naive of Penn Power (now FirstEnergy) to think that a massive pool of coal ash slurry would be a fun place to play.   The Little Blue Run reservoir holds 40 million tons of coal ash, ash that contains arsenic, lead, mercury, and many other toxins.  These toxins were in the coal that was burned by the Bruce Mansfield plant and were gathered by pollution controls.  Controls which thankfully kept the toxins out of the air.

But the pollutants weren’t destroyed, only kicked a little further down the road.  Coal combustion waste sits in over 1,300 landfills or impoundments all across the United States.  When exposed to water, the toxins dissolve and concentrate, forming “leachate” which may then enter and contaminate ground or surface waters.

Each state regulates this ash differently.  Many states have extremely weak regulations.  In Texas, no coal ash disposal permits are required if the ash is disposed of on property owned or leased by the generator within 50 miles of the generation.  According to the Environmental Integrity Project, “States whose regulations fail to require monitoring at ash ponds, both old and new, accounted for approximately 70% of the coal combustion waste generated in 2008.”   The National Resources Defense Council states that 40% of landfills and 80% of surface impoundments do not have liners to prevent leaching.  Private and public wells and surface waters have been contaminated at dozens of sites in many states.  The TVA Kingston ash flood of 2008 dumped over 1 billion gallons of ash slurry over 300 acres when an earthen wall gave way.  Total cleanup costs for this disaster are expected to top a billion dollars.  Kingston’s was the most dramatic coal ash event and the largest spill in United States history, but smaller, hidden contaminations are occurring elsewhere, right now.

Leaving the regulation of this toxic soup to individual states has not worked.   Different states have different funding priorities and different political pressures at work.  Coal ash is too dangerous to be left to the changing winds of state politics.  GASP recently delivered comments to the EPA on their proposed changes to the way coal ash is regulated (read one set here).  We hope that the agency makes the right decision, to mandate enforceable federal standards for the safe storage of this waste.

Don’t believe industry’s claim that stronger regulations will hurt the beneficial use of coal ash–the EPA has gone out of its way to ensure reuse continues.  Don’t believe industry’s claim that the states can regulate ash as they see fit–they’ve had their chances, and have come up short.  Responsible storage of coal ash is no place for cutting corners or pinching pennies.  Join GASP to stay informed on this and other pollution issues.

12/17/10, “Picking Particles”

12/18/10, “Utility Workers”

12/19/10, “Weighing the Benefits”