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UPDATED: Allegheny County Health Department Announces Efforts to Combat Weather-Related Air Pollution Events Following Inversion, Days of Air Quality Exceedances

The Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) in a press release Thursday announced plans to combat weather-related air pollution events that threaten the health and well-being of local residents.

The announcement comes after GASP, residents, and fellow environmental groups last week demanded action from the department following a weather inversion and days of associated poor air quality that prompted state officials to issue Air Quality Action Days and ACHD to send warnings about possible pollution-related health impacts.

Department officials said they know from research that inversions are expected to get worse with climate change.

“We’re seeing that first-hand here. From 2008-2018, there were four similar weather-related events that occurred in Allegheny County. In 2019, severe weather inversions happened twice—one episode in February and the most recent one last month,” ACHD Interim Director Ron Sugar said in a statement. “Prior to December’s inversions, the county was on track for the second year in a row – and in our history – to be in compliance with federal air quality standards. That accomplishment is now at risk.”

He added that “while the county may still attain the EPA standard in accordance with its recently submitted State Implementation Plan,” the health department recorded exceedances of the 24-hour PM2.5 federal National Ambient Air Quality Standard at the Liberty Monitor for six consecutive days Dec. 21 – 26.

On this point, GASP notes that monitoring stations along the Parkway East, in Avalon, and in Lawrenceville did not record any exceedances of federal air quality standards over this period.  While ACHD’s press release correctly pointed out “higher pollution readings were also recorded at other monitored sites across the county,” data establish that the residents of the Mon Valley— yet again—faced the worst of the bad air.

ACHD’s release went on to state: “While we will continue to advocate for residents to do what they can to reduce emissions, we must also explore new regulations that would impose corrective action requirements on industry during short-term pollution events. These extended exceedances and higher pollution levels are a clear threat to the health of the county’s residents, but ACHD’s current regulations do not provide options to address this issue.”

GASP strongly supports ACHD enhancing regulations aimed at reducing adverse health impacts associated with short-term air pollution events. But it’s worth noting a framework for taking such actions is already on the books: ACHD regulations include an entire chapter addressing “Air Pollution Episodes.”

The purpose of those regulations is to “provide (ACHD) with the authority to decrease the severity and duration of air pollution episodes by requiring staged reductions in the emission of air contaminant.”

The problem? ACHD has failed to update most of these regulations since 1994. That means the criteria for defining an air pollution episode didn’t list an action level for pm2.5—the federal air quality standard for fine particulate matter wasn’t developed until 1997.

ACHD will also take these steps to improve air quality as it relates to temperature inversions to further combat climate change:

  • ACHD will propose a new air quality regulation in 2020 aimed at emission mitigation requirements for industry operating in the county during weather-related pollution episodes. The goal is to have emission reduction plans in place that could be implemented within 24 hours of notice from ACHD that a public health hazard exists.
  • The department will “build an infrastructure to model and forecast inversion events as a necessary component for effective policy implementation.” Enhanced meteorological forecasting is a key element of this strategy, ACHD noted, adding that the expectation is that there will also be additional public notifications that will be possible.
  • ACHD officials will “continue to engage elected officials at the local, state and federal level to ensure comprehensive and workable solutions are advanced for improving air quality in the region.” Sugar said that through these partnerships, ACHD will continue to recommend and assist in the development of policy solutions to provide additional tools to the department. He cited House Bill 1752, sponsored by Rep. Austin Davis, as one example. Additionally, a companion bill has also been introduced by Sen. Katie Muth in the state Senate. That legislation would increase fines for facilities found to exceed established pollution thresholds and require industry to notify affected communities of potential health impacts when unforeseen accidents compromise facilities’ pollution controls.

GASP believes ACHD’s plan is a positive first step.

“It appears ACHD is getting the message that County residents are fed up with our poor air quality and refuse to accept weather conditions as the only mediating factor,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said. “The steps that ACHD proposes are welcome news and we look forward to working with ACHD to formulate an approach to stemming industrial emissions when weather is forecast to be poor. We hope the department will be equally eager to adopt stricter coke-oven regulations—a move that would help reduce industrial emissions every day.”

She added:

“The fact remains that inversions are common occurrences in our region and there could very well be many more between now and when these regulations take effect. We hope ACHD does everything that it can to expedite this process.”

Editor’s Note—Here are associated media clips:

County Seeks New Air Quality Regulations to Combat Unhealthy Smog, by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Don Hopey

After String of Smoggy Days, County Wants Polluters to Reduce Some Emissions During Some Weather Events, by WESA’s Kathleen Davis

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