Hotline, Summer 2000
On June 27th, 2000 a story entitled Report Suggests Uniform Air Quality Rules Statewide was printed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The article began, “Allegheny County’s air quality has improved enough so that regulations more stringent than state standards are no longer needed, according to the draft report of a transition committee appointed by Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey.”
GASP took umbrage with that analysis and went to work writing a letter to the appointed transition committee and ultimately were invited to speak to this committee. Following is a summary of our position on the issue, consisting primarily of excerpted portions of GASP’s letter to the committee, including the basis for our comments. We recognize that the county’s air quality standards are a very complex issue.
Dear members of the ACHD Transition Team:
We, the Board of Directors of GASP, wish to respectfully offer our thoughts on the future of air pollution control in Allegheny County.
To put our remarks in perspective, you may wish to know that GASP has a 30-year history of involvement with air pollution issues in the County. We participated in the writing of the County’s regulations, after the passage of the Federal Clean Air Act of 1970. Since that time we have been honored by appointment to membership of the County’s Air Pollution Advisory Committee. For the last 15 years, we have been similarly involved in an advisory capacity at the State level as well.
GASP recognizes that there are arguments for replacing our County rules with the State’s regulations, but on the whole we think it would be unwise to do so. We hope you will consider our thoughts on this question.
One charge that has been made about the County regulations is that they are more protective of health than the State’s, and perhaps unnecessarily so, because of some areas of air quality improvement.
One area in which our regulations are more stringent pertains to emission limits on coke plants. We feel that it would be a great mistake to relax those regulations, even though only two of the original three plants remain. One of those plants is the largest in the United States and the other is still in violation of County laws. The Shenango plant has never been able to come into compliance with County laws and continues to be a source of many citizen complaints, not to mention a federal lawsuit that was recently settled. Additionally, these plants are located in inversion prone, densely populated river valleys. Would we really want to revert to weaker regulations for these two major pollution sources?
We have heard that certain Team members think that some of our local regulations are out of date. But our experience is that the County, through its Air Pollution Advisory Committee, enables the aggrieved, from all sectors, to complain about – sometimes modify and thus update – our air pollution regulations. The process is an open one in a way that is not possible at the statewide level.
Though the state operates a regional office at Washington’s Landing, the real governance and policy directives of the DEP come from Harrisburg — a four hour drive from Pittsburgh. Inviting citizens to future meetings at an Allegheny County Health Department, which utilizes DEP guidelines formulated in Harrisburg, puts them in the wrong city with the wrong people for meaningful discussions relevant, in particular, to southwestern PA.
It has also been argued, we are told, that the County regulations are not tied tightly enough to the County’s development needs. If so, the remedy would seem to lie in more local control of regulation modification, rather than turning the job over to the State.
We have also heard it suggested that the County should de-emphasize some inspections. Given the recent multi-million dollar fines paid by Shenango Coke and Edgar Thomson in Consent Decrees with the EPA and ACHD, we would say that is penny wise and pound-foolish. If anything, inspections should be more frequent resulting in compliance with regulations.
Aside from coke plant emissions, the County faces other air pollution problems that we think are more effectively addressed at the local level, even though these problems are not unique to our industrialized region. We enumerate a few.
Ozone. For many years, the Allegheny County region has been in moderate non-attainment of the 1-hour ozone standard. More recently, during the last three years, there have been 13 exceedences at the four county monitors. Under the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, the persistence of this problem, may well bump up this designation to “serious non-attainment.” Were this to happen, the ozone problem would then become a more local one. Though the County and state must both play a role in this problem, there could be room for the county to actualize more rigorous controls in this most urban area of the region.
While much ozone is transported into our region from upwind states, much is also generated within Pennsylvania, as the ingredients [nitrogen oxides (NOx) + volatile organic compounds (VOCs) + sunshine] are here. The Southwest PA Ozone Stakeholders Group accepts modeling which suggests that 33% of ozone is imported from out-of-state, while another 33% is produced here by industrial and vehicular emissions. The state of PA is moving on a multi-state proposal on ozone reduction, and this is a very slow process. Meanwhile, ozone related illness plague area citizens, especially Allegheny County’s 70,000 asthmatics.
(GASP continued comments that reflected the County’s additional regulations around some abrasive blasting activities, open burning and asbestos controls.)
It has been said that the County has, in the past, moved too slowly in the issuance of construction and operating permits. Permit issuance has, in recent years, been slowed down by the State’s dilatory action in approving the County’s Title V regulations. Another possible cause is the drastic cut in legal staff that the Air Pollution Bureau experienced six years ago. There may be internal administrative deficiencies as well, but again we would aver that with local control, we should be in a better position to ferret out problems of this sort than if permit issuance is turned over to an even larger bureaucracy.
It should also be noted that there is something to be said for moving slowly on the issuance of a permit to a major air pollution source. Air quality issues are often scientific in nature, and take time to comprehend. To cite a recent example, it took from late July, 1998, when LTV submitted a permit application for the construction of a new coke plant in Hazelwood to Sept. 11, 1998, for news of the proposed, but flawed, SUN Coke plant design to emerge in our local press.1 The failure of SUN’s boilers in its model plant had resulted in the direct venting of soot and sulfur dioxide gases in Indiana. It was not until the Fall and Winter of 1998 that locally affected community groups, the Hazelwood Initiative,2 the Greenfield Organization,3 and the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition,4 had opportunities to meet, and issue position papers opposing the construction of the proposed SUN coke plant.
Citizens deserve time to investigate air quality issues, and to meet together locally with one another and with those elected representatives who are empowered to affect and to set policy. Fast-tracking the permitting process by attaching “guaranteed” time frames to construction and operating permits which impact communities and their air quality in effect blocks much citizen engagement.
GASP wants to thank the Transition Team for the thoughtful consideration you are giving to this important regulatory issue. We thank you also for taking our views in this complex issue into account.
Marie Kocoshis, President
1. Stacklin, Jeff, “ Design flaws plague Indiana coke plant. Proposed Hazelwood plan would be similar,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 11, 1998, D1+
2. The Hazelwood Initiative [Pittsburgh, PA. community organization], “Resolution,” November 10, 1998.
3.Greenfield Organization, [Pittsburgh, PA. community organization], “GO opposes new coke plant,” Greenfield Grapevine, November, 1998.
4. Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, [Pittsburgh, PA community organization], “Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition Resolution in Opposition to the Proposed LTV Sun Coke Plant,” n.d.