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In the Face of Poor Air Quality, Allegheny County Health Department (AGAIN) Gives Far Too Much Credit to Mother Nature

When air quality was downright awful for more than a week during the festive season this past December, ACHD was quick to point out that a prolonged atmospheric inversion was the culprit.

Technically speaking, an inversion will inhibit pollution from dispersing into the wider atmosphere, but make no mistake: An inversion will only concentrate pollutants, not create them. 

The polluters were the problem, not Mother Nature.

Over the past month, ground-level ozone has exceeded federal health-based limits on several occasions in Allegheny County and in areas across southwestern Pennsylvania. Unlike this past winter though, inversions are not the cause. But that hasn’t kept ACHD from – yet again – placing a disproportionate share of the blame on Mother Nature.

In emails sent out Monday and Tuesday addressing the recent spate of ozone issues, ACHD stated, “Ozone is a regional pollutant and is overwhelmingly weather dependent.”

ACHD isn’t entirely wrong but there is a strongly misleading undercurrent to that statement.

EPA’s Ground-level Ozone Basics website states:

“(G)round level ozone is not emitted directly into the air but is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). This happens when pollutants emitted by cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries, chemical plants, and other sources chemically react in the presence of sunlight.”

To summarize: Ozone is a pollutant formed by other pollutants when they mix in the presence of sunlight. So, yes, sunlight is necessary and beyond the powers of county governments to control. But the other essential ingredients are pollutants that ACHD absolutely has the authority and an obligation to limit and regulate.

To suggest that ground-level ozone is “overwhelmingly” dependent on weather implies that when the entire region sees hot, sunny days – as we have over the past month or so – the region as a whole should see high ozone readings.

Thing is, that just isn’t reflected in the data from the past five weeks.

We appreciate that ozone formation is complex and know ACHD will be deploying additional monitoring next year to research the issue further, but this is a problem now, and one that appears to require more than “closely monitoring this situation,” as ACHD promised to do in its recent emails.

GASP is calling on ACHD to live up to a promise it made in January to examine and revise its regulations on so called “Action Days.”

When air quality is predicted to be poor, ACHD has very few and very weak regulations on the books that would require short-term reductions in or cessation of pollution-causing activities.  

What does it have? A robust list of steps residents can take to limit pollution-related activities.

“It’s almost beyond the pale to ask residents – especially those who live in environmental justice communities polluted by industry – to significantly alter their daily routines on ‘action days’ while at the same time staying mum on what specific steps businesses need to take to do the same,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said. “It’s especially crass when you consider that curtailing production at major industrial facilities on ‘action days’ would reap far more air quality benefits than anything residents can do.”

GASP believes it is imperative that ACHD’s Air Quality Program make good on a promise it first made way back in the 1970s and create not only procedures intended to stem industrial pollution during periods of bad weather, but also every day through tighter coke oven regulations.

ACHD and the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) must accept its duty to protect public health, even when Mother Nature complicates matters. 

Editor’s Note: Wondering where the air quality monitors are located throughout the region? Check out this map:

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