Air Pollution Committee OKs Smokereaders Proposal

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Hotline, Summer 2000

A GASP-originated proposal to train and use ten citizen ‘smokereaders’ to spot air quality violations on Neville Island and other heavily industrialized areas received approval by the Allegheny County Health Department’s Air Pollution Control Advisory Committee at its July 25 meeting. The proposal now goes for approval to the Board of Health, the County Council, and County Executive Jim Roddey. The estimated cost of $33,950 for the project’s first three years would come from the county’s Clean Air Fund.

The smokereaders plan, together with three others, was earlier proposed to the U.S. District Court by GASP and Clean Water Action as Supplementary Environmental Projects to be funded out of fines to be paid by Shenango, Inc., Neville Island coke producer, in the current federal suit against it for environmental violations. The court did not accept the proposal for the SEPs, but in fining Shenango $2.1 million for seven years of violations, it assigned $800,000 of that fine to the county’s Clean Air Fund. GASP, together with Clean Water Action and the County Health Department, is now revising the other three plans–for an environmental audit of the Shenango coke plant’s operations, enhanced monitoring of Neville Island industries’ emissions, and the creation of a Community Oversight Panel–for additional submissions to the county Clean Air Fund.

Details of Smokereaders Proposal

Here are the central elements of the smokereaders proposal:

The Need: The Allegheny County Health Department is understaffed with regard to inspections of sources of air pollution located in the county in general and on Neville Island in particular. Currently, only one main inspector covers Neville Island, one of the most densely industrialized areas remaining in the county and an area bounded on all sides by residential neighborhoods and retail businesses. While some air pollution sources may have continuous emission/opacity monitors, the resulting data is sometimes incomplete or otherwise unable to show compliance or non-compliance with applicable county air regulations.

A Remedy: Ten residents of Neville Island or the areas immediately surrounding Neville Island would receive initial training and, periodically thereafter, retraining as necessary to qualify as certified opacity readers. This pilot program of certifying and maintaining the certification of citizen smokereaders would continue for a period of three years from initial certification of the ten residents, with the option of an extension thereafter if the program is successful. The periodic readings taken by these citizens would be compared to opacity observations/readings supplied by the sources themselves or obtained by ACHD staff. In order to maximize the utility of the opacity readings, any company as to which opacity violations are identified would be immediately provided a copy of reports (and underlying data sheets) prepared by the smoke reader(s). The ACHD would, at the same time, receive the data, to aid it in its independent efforts to enforce compliance with air quality regulations.

Management: A committee of not more than five members chosen by the Group Against Smog and Pollution and the Pittsburgh office of Clean Water Action would administer the program, perhaps delegating many supervisory duties to an Executive Director. Responsibilities would include selecting individuals to receive training and certification as opacity readers from a qualified contractor, and paying the readers for time spent for certification and recertification, as necessary, and preparing annual audit reports.

by David Fowler, GASP Board Member