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Health Department Warns Stagnant Conditions to Continue Through Tuesday Morning, Increased Air Pollution Overnight as Air Quality Exceedances Mount

Awful air quality is expected to persist through Tuesday morning in Allegheny County, with health department officials warning of increased air pollution overnight as exceedances of air quality standards mount.

For the fourth day in a row, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued a Code Orange Action Day for the county Monday. 

In the past week, hydrogen sulfide concentrations have soared at the Liberty monitor, with Allegheny County experiencing five straight days of exceedances of the state standard – bringing the annual total to 25 so far, according to preliminary data from ACHD.

And expect another today: The H2S concentration was so high from 12 a.m. to 8 a.m. Monday that it’s numerically impossible for today’s 24-average concentration to stay below the state standard, meaning we are guaranteed six days in a row over the limit.

But that’s not all: The concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) exceeded the federal health-based standard for the past three days in a row at Liberty, and two days in a row at the Avalon monitor.

“It’s shameful that residents who live in a city touted as one of America’s most livable have to shutter their doors and windows to keep out dirty air on what might be one of the last good-weather weekends of the year,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini. “While poor air quality was widespread in Allegheny County this past weekend, it was especially unacceptable in the Mon Valley, an area long plagued by industrial polluters.”

She stressed that it was well past time for ACHD to make good on its commitment to retooling its episodic weather regulations to help safeguard public health during periods when poor air dispersion is expected. For those following along: The current regulations are so old that they do not even list an action level for PM2.5, a substance the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began regulating in 1997.

“While we thank ACHD for sharing some of DEP’s air quality alerts, we implore officials to publish public health warnings that reflect the stricter standards we have in place locally,” Filippini said. “At a time when COVID rates are soaring and there is mounting medical evidence that exposure to air pollution leads to more serious outcomes for those who contract the virus, it’s irresponsible for ACHD not to reiterate to the public that open and recreational burning is prohibited during Code Orange Action Days.

She added: “And it’s downright offensive that while ACHD provides specific guidance to residents on how they can mitigate air pollution during these periods, it still has no plan in place for getting industrial polluters to dial down production when weather conditions are expected to exacerbate poor air quality, putting public health at risk.”

GASP encourages everyone to take a stand: Call or write to Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald, your county councilperson, and U.S. Steel to let them know that we demand – and deserve – clean air, and ask them to prioritize the development of an updated episodic weather regulations.

“Last year we wrote an open letter to U.S. Steel asking them to update the public on what it is doing to protect its neighbors from undue industrial emissions during these weather episodes. Unsurprisingly, we heard nothing back,” Filippini said. “It’s telling that a company with a paid public relations staff can utilize its communications capabilities to mount a campaign to fight against updated coke oven regulations, but it can’t craft a statement telling the community how it is prepared to protect residents and indeed their own workers. At this point, they don’t seem to even pretend to care about the possible health implications from its Mon Valley operations.”

You can view ACHD’s latest air dispersion report here.

Editor’s Note: We graphed/charted the data for those who’d like to take a deeper dive:

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