Local Control of Air Quality Regulations Jeopardized

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Hotline, Fall 2000

The long awaited Roddey Transition Team Health Department Report1 recommends that Allegheny County replace its locally developed air quality regulations with those crafted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for the entire state.

Though the report approves retaining the Allegheny County Health Department as a contact site for citizen groups like GASP and the Sierra Club, future air quality policy directives would come from Harrisburg — a five hour drive from Pittsburgh. Today’s concerned citizens not only have the opportunity to attend ACHD air quality meetings in Lawrenceville, but also to meet with their local county council representatives, and to give testimony in the Gold Room of the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh. Inviting citizens to future meetings at ACHD which utilizes DEP guidelines formulated in Harrisburg puts citizens at the wrong table and in the wrong city for meaningful discussion.

For the Pittsburgh region to thrive, its citizens must be locally empowered to craft the quality of life of their city. To remove control to a much higher level — a state level — will only tend to empower full-time lobbyists who are highly paid to influence legislators’ decision making. This is not a level playing field for NGOs (non-governmental organizations) or for citizens.

The current Allegheny County’s air quality regulations are site specific; they were developed over decades to address the particular needs of our urban, highly populated, heavily industrialized, inversion prone river valleys. The standards are created here, understood here, and the implications of not following them are also understood here.

Although it is likely that the DEP would initially adopt many of the ACHD regulations, the report urges that the DEP “adopt them using language that will automatically adopt any subsequent changes in state regulations so that the County’s regulations are always uniform with state regulations.” Thus, the standards could decrease at any future time.

Other recommendations of the report include:

1. a one-stop-shop for developers.

2. tie the ACHD environmental program more tightly with efforts of the Allegheny County Department of Economic Development

3. decreasing the number of inspections conducted

4. self-inspection by regulated entities [industrial air emission sources, municipal landfills] that have an established record of compliance.

5. automatic sunset dates for ACHD sub-committees

6. partnering with non-profits to utilize their staff to deal with the administration and implementation of grant funds so as not to “drain” the department [ACHD].

7. the ACHD review its basic mission and its funding to ensure that it is focused on what is “legally required”

A basic assumption underlies the report which repeatedly states that “concentrated heavy industry in the area [occurred] in the past.” Its authors clearly have dismissed the1996-1998 emissions levels of criteria pollutants in TPY published by the ACHD2 and a recent Abt Associates’ study showing that Pennsylvania ranks first among all states in deaths/year (2,250) caused by power plant pollution, while Pittsburgh ranks sixth among cities in annual premature mortality (585).3

As Mayor Daniel Bricmont, chairman of the Health Department’s Air Quality Citizens Advisory Committee and mayor of Avalon, stated, “The [drafting] committee recommendation is not unlike suggestions we’ve heard in the past from industry…. This is an overly broad proposal. They want to make everything the same throughout the state without paying attention to the history, population density, the number of sources and the toxicity of emissions. It seems our air quality regulations have been working over the last 50 years and if they’re getting the job done, if they’re not broken, there’s no need to fix them… the proposal to do away with them is tantamount to backsliding.”

GASP members and others who share the position expressed in this article are encouraged to contact their county council representative, and urge them to keep control at the local level.

1. Roddey Transition Team Health Department Report (accessible at http://www.roddeytransitionteam.com/healthreport.htm)
2. Allegheny County Health Department. Air Quality Program. Assessment of Estimated Annual Emissions of Criteria Air Pollutants for 1996-1998, [2000].
3. Hopey, Don. Soot-caused deaths high, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 17, 2000, A-3.

by Fran Harkins, GASP Member