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Allegheny County Health Department Responds to Extended Bout of Bad Air Quality, Again Blames the Weather

Here at GASP, we’re all about giving credit where credit is due. To that end, we thank the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) for finally issuing a public update regarding the recent bout of horrific air quality exacerbated by nearly a week of stagnant weather conditions.

Yes, the department provided the public with a statement that indicated that air quality was expected to improve as weather conditions more conducive to clean air were rolling in. Yes, the department sympathized with local residents who were forced to stay indoors on an otherwise beautiful, sunshiny day. And yes, they responded to the calls from GASP, fellow grassroots groups, and residents for updated episodic weather regulations – reiterating that they “remain a priority” for the department.

Unfortunately, though, ACHD did what it always seems to do: It largely blamed the weather and placed a disproportionate amount of the responsibility for mitigating air pollution during Code Orange Air Quality Action Days on residents instead of industrial pollution.

ACHD wrote:

“The air quality issues recently faced by Allegheny County were experienced in communities across the region. Industrial pollution across the region contributed to the recent poor air quality but so did personal pollution from individual actions such as burning firewood or leaves or using gas-powered lawn and garden equipment like a leaf blower.

Its message also explicitly asked residents to do their part to reduce air pollutants on days with poor dispersion, writing: “The Health Department asks that residents refrain from these activities during periods of poor air quality.”

There was no such explicit public call to action for industrial polluters.

There was also no mention of air quality being so lousy that the county experienced nine air quality exceedances in the past week – six for hydrogen sulfide concentrations and three for high levels of fine particulate matter.

Why is that important? Because when it comes to hydrogen sulfide concentrations, there’s practically nothing that residents can do to make a marked increase. But U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works can: Not only is it the largest emitter of hydrogen sulfide in the county, but the entire state.  And it should be mentioned that currently, U.S. Steel is actively fighting any new regulations to control H2S emissions.

GASP thinks that’s a fairly significant omission.

“Alerts like the one issued by ACHD Monday are frustrating to residents and watchdog groups alike,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said Tuesday morning. “The fact is, you can’t blame the weather. Poor air dispersion doesn’t create pollution, it just traps it.”

She added that ACHD must do more than tell the public that the regs are in progress.

“We need to know exactly what progress has been made because our area will be dealing with more of these poor air dispersion days as winter approaches,” Filippini said. “GASP sits on three ACHD air quality subcommittees and attends every board of health meeting. These regulations have not been brought up during any of those public meetings that we can recall.”

GASP renews its call to ACHD for it to be more proactive and specific in its messaging – and asks that it explicitly and publicly call on U.S. Steel to voluntarily limit production when a bout of poor weather expected to cause a public health hazard occurs. 

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