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GASP Joins PennEnvironment for Release of its New Report Detailing Clean Air Act Enforcement Challenges in Pittsburgh

The Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) on Thursday joined Penn Environment downtown for a press conference unveiling the environmental nonprofit’s new report, which documents how decades of poor enforcement of air quality rules by the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) “enabled industrial facilities to pollute the region’s air.”

PennEnvironment Field Organizer Zachary Barber said the report titled, “Cutting Through the Smoke,” found that ACHD has enabled pollution through slow permitting and weak enforcement.

The report comes in the wake of the departure of ACHD Director Karen Hacker, and makes recommendations for how the incoming director can improve enforcement techniques and “in turn better protect residents from dangerous air pollution.”

“When ACHD finds a health problem at a restaurant, it shuts the restaurant down. Yet for decades, ACHD allowed polluters to go right on harming our health,” Barber said. “There are simple, time-tested enforcement practices used across the country that, if implemented in Allegheny County, could go a long way towards reining in dangerous pollution.”

Here are some of the report’s key findings:

  • ACHD allowed major polluters to operate without required pollution permits. Of the 32 industrial facilities in Allegheny County required to hold federally required operating permits, one out of three have either been running with an outdated and expired pollution permit or have never been issued the required pollution permit in the first place. Clean Air Act permits are the first steps in protecting the public from pollution, providing critical tools for enforcement and transparency.
  • ACHD favored weak enforcement actions and polluter-friendly legal settlements, which failed to halt illegal air pollution. Many violations continued even after repeated enforcement efforts from ACHD. ACHD took more than 80 formal and informal enforcement actions against U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works over the last 30 years (an average of 2.7 per year), but the facility continues to illegally pollute on a regular basis. Harsco Metals continues to illegally blanket the surrounding community in dust a decade after the Health Department’s first attempt to clean it up.
  • Some signs of improvement. ACHD has made recent steps toward a tougher approach to enforcement, increasing penalties for illegal pollution and moving away from voluntary settlements. The department’s $2.7 million penalty against U.S. Steel and its willingness to consider shutdown of coke making at Clairton Works after a recent fire that knocked out pollution control equipment are among several recent steps to increase accountability for polluters.

As a result of its report, Penn Environment implored ACHD to implement a series of best practices for the enforcement of clean air laws, including:

  1. Issue timely, health-based Clean Air Act permits and clear its backlog.
  2. Pursue aggressive enforcement action to ensure industrial facilities don’t “pay to pollute.”
  3. Expand air quality monitoring, deploying more monitors around major sources to better track emissions.
  4. Partner with public, advocacy groups, technical experts and other government agencies to bring extra resources to bear in the fight for clean air.

GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini echoed many of PennEnvironment’s concerns, and called for change.

“In the past, ACHD officials have been too quick to settle with repeat industrial polluters, and the fines issued don’t appear to deter future—and in some instances, ongoing—violations,” Filippini said. “If we ever hope to move off the ‘worst air quality lists’ that our county is so used to being featured on, then we must ensure industry gets the message that polluting is both financially and politically untenable here. We hope the incoming director of the Allegheny County Health Department takes an aggressive approach to enforcement; one that tells potential polluters, ‘Not on my watch.’”

PennEnvironment’s “Cutting Through the Smoke” can be viewed in its entirety on the nonprofit’s website.

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