Ozone in Allegheny County

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Hotline, Winter 2000

At a recent press conference under the billowing slightly yellow plume of the Cheswick Power Plant, PennPIRG joined by GASP and Penn Future released a report done by US PIRG and CAN, (Clean Air Network) concerning the ozone problem in the United States. Following are the comments by GASP, referring primarily to the problem in Allegheny County:

In this report , Pennsylvania ranked #4 in number of exceedences of the 8-hour ozone standard in 1999 in the US. It should not be surprising then that Allegheny County is presently in moderate non-attainment for compliance with the one-hour ozone standard and risks bump-up.

The 8-hour standard was challenged by the very industries that significantly contribute to the need for such standards, the American Trucking Association and its allies, resulting in the standard now being up for review before the US Supreme Court. That leaves the older less protective 1-hour standard in force. But whether Allegheny County uses the 8-hour standard or the 1-hour standard, for the 1997-1999 three-year period, the County is in non-compliance resulting in what is termed moderate non-attainment under the one hour standard.

Just how bad was it in 1999? For the one-hour standard which is what is in force, through the ozone season, there were 6 exceedences among the 4 monitors operated by the County. Four exceedences of the 120 ppb standard (rounding up to 125 ppb) at the same monitor over a rolling three years is a violation. Thus for 1997-1999, the Harrison monitor and the Penn Hills monitor both showed violations. Over that 3-year period, Harrison had 5 exceedences, Penn Hills had 4, Lawrenceville had 3 and S. Fayette had 1. For the 8 hour standard, which is 80 ppb averaged over an 8 hour period, there were a total of 50 exceedences at the 4 monitors operated by the county. For the 97-99 period, we are in violation of the standard and the numbers are well above the necessary 80 ppb rounded to 85ppb. What can we do about this problem? Fortunately the EPA has taken action to tighten the emission and fuel standards for vehicles. This will include the light trucks and popular Sports Utility Vehicles, which have previously been allowed to operate at dirtier levels than lighter automobiles. However, this does not address the heavier trucks and buses.

The other major part of this problem is the power plants, especially the older fossil fueled power plants which because they were expected to close, had no specific requirements written into the Clean Air Act to force them to adopt the more stringent pollution control equipment required of newer plants. They legally operate at levels 4-10 times dirtier than new plants. Cheswick behind us here is 30 years old. If the Cheswick plant were forced to meet modern standards, it would be equivalent to removing almost 250,000 cars from the road. It is 8.4 times dirtier than the emission requirements for a new plant with respect to sulfur dioxide and 2.7 times dirtier with respect to nitrogen oxides (primary precursors of ozone) based on 1997 emissions. But Cheswick is not as big or as dirty as some other area plants such as Hatfield’s Ferry in Greene County. The emissions from power plants travel long distances making us all downwinders.

The electric power industry is the largest industrial source of smog forming NOx in the US, emitting 26% of the nations total and coal burning power plants also emit 66% of the nations SO2, precursors of acid rain. We are often told by the regulatory agencies in Pennsylvania that ozone in PA is an upwind problem and that is partially true but not totally by a long shot. If you think that is not so, you should note that the EPA recently targeted most of the older power plants in Pa for NOx reductions as part of a resolution to a 126 Petition by northeastern states. This petition requested the EPA to force upwind states to clean up their NOx pollution so that the downwind affected states could meet the ozone standards. Pennsylvania is one of the petitioning states and upwind states such as Ohio, and West Virginia will be affected but Pennsylvania had the largest number of affected sources that will have to make NOx reductions including Cheswick. While these fossil fueled power plants are major contributors to the formation of ozone and acid rain, we should also be mindful that they are leading contributors of mercury emissions which is only beginning to be addressed by the EPA.

As populations around the world expand, the US has the opportunity to show its leadership in developing, requiring and implementing cleaner technologies and strategies for power in our homes and automobiles. It is time to embrace this future which in the longer term could really make Allegheny County some place special.

We urge Governor Ridge, like Governor Pitaki of New York who is taking action within New York to reduce emissions inside his state, to address the problem and require a clean up of these older fossil fueled power plants in Pennsylvania. If everything must come down to a cost analysis, then just the financial cost to health and the environment are too costly to ignore. Summer smog (ground-level ozone) in the eastern half of the US, sends an estimated 53,000 persons to the hospital, 159,000 to the emergency room and triggers 6,200,000 asthma attacks each summer according to this report. According to a recent publication by Penn State, The Effects of Acidic Deposition on Pennsylvania’s Forests, acid rain has damaged and destroyed many of our state’s trees, leaving large expanses of Pennsylvania’s forests dying.

by Suzanne Seppi, GASP Executive Director