Perspectives: Not quite there on clean air

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Hotline, Summer 2001

by Walter Goldburg, GASP President

This article was written by GASP’s President, Walter Goldburg and printed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on May 1, 2001.

Beyond a doubt, our skies look clearer than they used to. But there is plenty of pollution left. If you don’t believe it, ask an asthma sufferer, or run a clean cloth across that table on your back porch.

The fact is, air quality is a problem that Pittsburgh knows how to fix — or used to. Back in the 1940s, when it was evident that air quality would eventually threaten Pittsburgh’s economic survival, local government worked hard to enact stringent air pollution laws and appointed the Allegheny County Health Department to administer them. These laws, ahead of national air quality standards by more than 20 years, made us internationally famous for smoke and odor control. When heavy industry ruled the roost around here, an argument could be made that excellent air quality was a luxury we couldn’t afford — but not any more. As we struggle to compete with other cities, environmental quality becomes critical for attracting and retaining the talent we need to drive our economic engine.

What has gone wrong? This county has the necessary air quality laws, but the ability to enforce them seems to have diminished. Take, for example, LTV’s old Hazelwood coke plant. It polluted the air so badly between 1996 and 1998 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed a notice of violation of emission standards in 1997 and the U.S. Justice Department filed suit in 1998.

The LTV plant is gone, but Shenango’s Neville Island coke plant remains. For more than a decade, it has operated in violation of the county’s rules. For 1,250 days between August 1993 and April 1999, the plant performed so badly that its violations triggered a federal suit. Meanwhile, the pollution continues, as nearby residents loudly attest. Neither situation would have reached federal court if the violations had been stopped early at the local level.

Effective enforcement obviously must rest on adequate air quality monitoring and frequent plant inspections. Alas, both are on the decline.

The county recently announced that it must shrink its monitoring program for lack of personnel.

For uncooperative polluters, the county must ultimately fall back on legal enforcement, and we previously had the staff to do the job. At present, the Health Department has no lawyers specializing in air pollution laws. As a result, the county must rely on legal talent from the EPA, whose concerns do not always coincide with ours. For example, federal laws are silent on the matter of odor problems, while the county forbids a plant from sending foul odors beyond its gates. Over the decades, it is plant odors that generate the greatest number of public complaints.

At an earlier time, when the county had a nationally recognized legal staff, coke plant air pollution violations generated penalties that were imposed quarterly. In the past year no county enforcement actions were taken. GASP’s letters about this bring no response.

Late last year the transition team for county Chief Executive Jim Roddey suggested that part of the Allegheny County Health Department’s air quality responsibility be handed over to the state Department of Environmental Protection. GASP believes that the county’s health and economic interests are served best by the existence of local regulations and a county agency that is tuned to our local pollution problems. The director of the Board of Health agrees with us on this.

Philadelphia likewise favors local control, presumably for the same reasons that the county chose this regulatory route. Missing is cooperation between state and county. Instead we hear sniping criticism of one agency by the other. If the county cannot afford adequate legal and technical staff, the state should offer assistance. For example, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection on Herrs Island has two lawyers trained to deal with air pollution issues. Why can’t their help be enlisted here?

One hundred years ago, dirty air went with good jobs. But now the table has turned. In the next 10 to 50 years, businesses and talent will choose to locate where the quality of life is good and the air is clean. What can be done? We have a local agency that knows our region intimately. It works sensitively to balance our economic and public health needs and it brings in almost as much income as it needs to operate.

We know we have air quality problems, but we also have the technical know-how to solve them. What’s missing is the resolve to do so.