Haze Cuts Two Ways

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Hotline, Winter 2003

by Walter Goldburg, GASP Board Member

Haze gets us all in the lungs and hits vacation states in the pocket book. Take a look at the Grand Canyon on a hazy day and on a clear one. Now decide if you want to spend your money to fly or drive the family to visit that glorious spot — chances are, you won’t see much. Ditto for Shenandoah Park and lots of other places too.

Shenandoah - clear
Shenandoah National Park on a clear day

Shenandoah - hazy
Shenandoah National Park on a hazy day

As time goes on, the fraction of hazy days goes up, and our national parks become less and less fun to visit. One of the goals of the 1990 Clean Air Act was to buck this trend. Implementing a plan initiated under Bill Clinton, President Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) boss, Christine Whitman, approved guidelines aimed at drastically reducing haze in our national parks. These new EPA rules don’t tinker just around at the edges; they promise to reduce drastically the levels of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants that cause haze. But don’t hold your breath while you wait. This new plan will take something like 20 years to bear fruit.

The first step toward dealing with the haze-in-the-park problem is to reduce fine particulate levels everywhere. Fine particles are those smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter (a 30th the diameter of a human hair). Alas, these flecks of dust do more than cloud the view. Each year, says the EPA, they are also responsible for:

  • tens of thousands of premature deaths from heart and lung disease
  • tens of thousands of hospital admissions and emergency visits
  • millions of school and work absences

Just how bad is the 2.5-micron particulate problem where we live? Bad enough that Allegheny County violates the present EPA standard for this pollutant (called PM 2.5) at 9 of its 12 monitoring stations. Driven by the extremely high readings at a single PM 2.5 monitor near the Clairton Coke works, Pittsburgh ranks in the dirtiest dozen counties in the country out of a total of 1000. Amongst all the cities in the US (and the Pittsburgh metropolitan area is classified as a city), the only one worse than ours is Los Angeles. Again, it is the Clairton Coke Works that puts us in this category. This pollution hurts a large population living in the eastern part of the county.

What segment of the population is hit worst by haze-causing pollution? Of course it is those with heart or lung disease, the elderly, and our children, especially those who suffer with asthma. But that pulls in 40% of the US population.

Do not think that improvements in air quality backed by the EPA will be achieved without a fight. Industry groups say that the Whitman plan is “unworkable” and that it is not authorized by the Clean Air Act. A lawyer for the American Petroleum Institute says these guidelines go far beyond what Congress intended. The American Forest and Paper Association likewise opposes it.

Do you prefer to sit this one out, or do you want to help GASP as it works to turn these haze reduction plans into a reality? If the latter, contact us at (412) 441-6650 or gasp@gasp-pgh.org.