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“State of the Air” Report: Although Improvements Noted, Pittsburgh-Area Air Quality Still Gets Failing Grades

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 12:35 p.m. on April 21 to include a link to a statement issued by the Allegheny County Health Department regarding the annual state of the air report.

The American Lung Associations’ annual “State of the Air” report is out and the grades are in: While our region saw incremental air quality improvements, it still scored straight F’s for exposure to ozone, short-term PM 2.5 and long-term PM 2.5.  

In fact, the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton region still ranks among the top-10 worst regions in the country when it comes to exposure to long-term exposure to fine particle pollution. 

You can read the report, which uses the latest certified federal air quality monitoring data from 2017-19, here

The annual report is lengthy and complex – and throws around a ton of numbers. So GASP and fellow Breathe Collaborative members want to be clear: While the incremental improvements noted in the report are encouraging, there is still so much work to do to ensure all residents of Allegheny County have healthy air – especially those most vulnerable to air pollution and those living in front-line communities like Clairton and Braddock.

The report provides a snapshot of two critical federally regulated air pollutants – PM2.5 and ozone. But it’s important to remember those aren’t the only ones that plague our region. Not included are other federally regulated air pollutants like sulfur dioxide (SO2). 

And consider this: Allegheny County is currently not meeting the federal sulfur dioxide standard. The “State of the Air” report also doesn’t address state-regulated air pollutants like hydrogen sulfide (H2S). High concentrations of H2S (widely recognized by its foul, rotten-egg odor) are registered all too often in the Mon Valley. In fact, so far this year there have already been 21 exceedances of Pennsylvania’s 24-hour average H2S standard – 13 at the Liberty monitor and eight more at the North Braddock monitor. 

The only way our region has a chance of clawing its way off the 10-worst list is through more robust enforcement of industrial sources long known to be air pollution bad actors. With the region again scoring an “F” for exposure to PM2.5 and other hazardous air pollutants, now is the time for local leaders like Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald to champion stronger coke oven and episodic air pollution regulations. 

Speaking of enforcement and compliance efforts: ACHD’s Air Quality Program needs to be better funded. Period. Right now, health officials are stuck in a David v. Goliath situation – a public agency up against multi-billion companies like U.S. Steel. One way to buoy enforcement and compliance efforts that will help further clean up our air is for the county to swiftly approve proposed draft air quality permit fees. That fee schedule will soon be before the Allegheny County Council for a vote. We encourage local residents to join us in imploring council members to vote “yes” on the fee schedule changes. You can add your name to the hundreds who have already signed our petition.

“While ALA’s report indicates improvements, at the end of the day we are still failing. Polluted air translates into more asthma attacks, heart attacks, and cancer for people in our region, and a deteriorated quality of life for everyone,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said. “Regulators and decision-makers need to act more aggressively to improve air quality and treat it like the urgent public health issue that it is.”

People living in the region, especially in communities in proximity to the region’s largest industrial polluters like Braddock and Clairton, continue to experience degraded quality of life as a result of the region’s poor performance on air quality. 

“This remains a serious environmental justice issue worthy of being prioritized by local officials,” Filippini added. 

Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania Director for Clean Water Action, agreed.

“Reports like the Lung Association’s State of the Air show us what environmental racism looks like. Wealthier and whiter communities have raced ahead to clean up their air, leaving communities like Clairton, Duquesne and Braddock in the Mon Valley behind,” he said. “Allegheny County should act to level the playing field when it comes to having a healthy start in life.”

PennEnvironment Clean Air Advocate Zachary Barber called our areas’ failing grades as “a wake up call” to local leaders.

“Allegheny County’s polluted air is jeopardizing the health of local residents and holding the region back. It’s clear that we aren’t doing enough,” he said. “Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and the health department need to step up their efforts to rein in harmful air pollution from Allegheny County’s ‘Toxic Ten’ industrial emitters.”

It’s also confirmation that we’ve got a lot more work to do, PennFuture President and CEO Jacquelyn Bonomo said.

“One bad air day is one too many, yet the Pittsburgh metro region still experiences dozens of bad air days annually,” she said. “We can do better than this, and we all deserve better than this. It’s time for elected officials of all stripes to commit to ending unhealthy air for all of our communities.”​

ACHD on Thursday afternoon issued its own statement on the ALA report. That press release can be viewed here.

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