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Concerns About Air Quality Dominate Public Comment at Allegheny County Board of Health Meeting

Concerns over poor air quality and recent emissions issues at U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works facilities dominated the public comments period of the Allegheny County Board of Health meeting Wednesday afternoon.

Nearly 20 people submitted comments sharing their worry over poor air quality, including GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini, who expressed concern over a lack of transparency regarding recent emissions issues at the Edgar Thomson plant.

She again called on Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) officials to provide a substantive update on how – and when – the facility will be forced to get back into compliance with county and federal air quality regulations.

She noted that ACHD and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) jointly issued a notice of violation to U.S. Steel back in 2017 following what officials called continued emissions issues at Edgar Thomson. Unfortunately, no information has been shared since then regarding what penalties and equipment upgrades would be required to get the facility back into compliance.

“ACHD officials at the time said the cooperative effort with EPA would maximize resources to ensure the plant got back into compliance and that the NOV was the beginning of a process that would determine what penalties, as well as equipment and operational changes, would be required. Yet, here we are in the second half of 2020, and still, no report has been issued by ACHD or EPA. GASP is troubled by this lack of transparency, and we are calling on both agencies to provide more answers,” Filippini said in her comments.

She continued: “Residents have had enough and they deserve better. While our neighbors in the Mon Valley continue to suffer from dirty air, U.S. Steel has been permitted to operate Edgar Thomson unfettered for years. If you want residents to feel like their health is of paramount importance, you must actually follow through and take action against industry polluters like U.S. Steel that regularly buck air pollution laws.”

In his comments, Breathe Project Executive Director Matt Mehalik told the board that since its last meeting in May, the Clairton area has appeared in the top-5 list of U.S. cities with the worst air quality 25 times in 62 day – or about 40 percent of the time, according to data from AirNow.com, a website that tracks air quality nationally.

Many residents who wrote in about air quality acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic and response required a full-court press from the health department, but stressed that air quality enforcement could no longer be put on the backburner.

“Air quality has never been more important in the Steel Valley,” Allegheny County resident April Clisura said. 

Another commenter, Thaddeus Popovich – a Franklin Park resident and member of Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN) – told the board that “noxious” odors that have long pervaded his neighborhood has spurred him to move across the county to Berkeley, California.

Resident Maylyn Torpey called on the department to prioritize air quality because the health of so many depend upon it.

“I want to live a long, healthy life, but without climate action, I will not be able to,” she said.

Longtime Clairton resident Art Thomas told the board about the myriad health issues his wife is facing – illnesses that he largely attributes to air pollution emanating from U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works. He described rancid odors and told the board he has to wear a mask in order to sleep at night.

“It’s no fun getting old in Clairton,” he said.

North Braddock resident Edith Abayta asked the board how much longer she’d have to wait for air quality to improve in her neighborhood – one that’s home to U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomas plant.

“When do I get to breathe air that does not harm me?” she asked.

In other business:

  • The board voted to send revisions to the PM2.5 SIP – Motor Vehicle Emissions Budget to public comment. ACHD’s Director of Environmental Health said the public comment period would run from July 18 – Aug. 17. The draft will then go back before the board for adoption at its Sept. 2 meeting, when it will be forwarded to the state to submit to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  • The board approved a Clean Air Fund request from One Tree Per Child Pittsburgh in the amount of $99,995. About $64,000 of that money will go to purchase 1,200 trees. The program will reach 20 schools in five local districts.
  • U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works plant manager told the board that an environmental audit conducted by a third-party took place June 26, and indicated that a final report will be submitted to ACHD late next month. The plant manager also reported that the company on June 30 submitted an application for an installation permit for the replacement PEC baghouses for Batteries 13-15 and 19-20 for improved capture and control of particulate matter. Both the audit and the installation of the baghouses were required by the 2019 settlement agreement between U.S. Steel and ACHD. 
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