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Mon Valley Residents Suffer Another Bout of Bad Air as Allegheny County Sees 3 More Air Quality Exceedances

Allegheny County experienced three more air quality exceedances this past weekend, with residents of the Mon Valley breathing in the worst of it.

Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) data show that levels of fine particulate matter were elevated at its Liberty air quality monitor situated downwind of U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, exceeding federal health limits Friday.

The 24-hour average concentration of PM2.5 at the Liberty monitor was 43.4 ug/m3. The federal health-based standard is 35 ug/m3.

But that’s not all: Concentrations of hydrogen sulfide at the Liberty monitor exceeded the Pennsylvania standard on both Friday and Saturday.

Although ACHD was aware since Wednesday that a bout of stagnant weather conditions could exacerbate local air quality, there was no public disclosure or warning issued until after the PM2.5 exceedance was noted. In a Post-Gazette story, an ACHD spokesman was nonchalant about the lack of disclosure, saying it was the responsibility of DEP – not ACHD – to issue action day alerts.

“Residents of Allegheny County just want to be able to breathe. If conditions are going to be ripe for exceptionally poor air quality, they need to hear about it from the health department, sooner rather than later, so that they can do what they can to mitigate health impacts,” said GASP Executive Director, Rachel Filippini.

GASP, which regularly checks ACHD’s air dispersion reports, began warning the public last Wednesday that weather conditions were expected to tank local air quality Friday into Saturday.

In its public alert Saturday, ACHD reiterated that it is taking steps to address poor air quality during inversions, which include a regulation aimed at emission mitigation requirements for industry operating in the county during these weather-related pollution episodes. It further noted that the department is working to build an infrastructure to model and forecast inversion events.

GASP appreciates and supports these efforts. But we would be remiss in our watchdog duties if we didn’t again call on ACHD to prioritize outreach when these events are expected so the residents they serve can have the knowledge they need to make better decisions about their own health.

ACHD issuing a public alert after a bad air episode is akin to a meteorologist warning people about a tornado the day after it rips through a town. It’s not helpful.

Editor’s Note: We know that when it comes to complex data, visuals can be helpful. Check out these infographics to take a deeper dive:

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  1. Amy Carothers says:

    Thank you for working to keep us informed and also for calling the ACHD to task. II truly appreciate your efforts to improve our air quality.

    1. Amanda Gillooly says:

      Thank you so much, Amy!

  2. In addition, another pollutant all too familiar to Mon Valley residents – hydrogen sulfide (H2S) – ended the day Sunday at twice the Pennsylvania state air quality standard of 0.005 ppm. H2S levels were so bad Monday morning that the 24-hour average is guaranteed to exceed the standard again today. For those who are unfamiliar, coke-making is the primary source of H2S in Allegheny County and U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works is not only the largest emitter in the county, but the entire state.

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