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Board of Health Green Lights Episodic Weather Regulations for Mon Valley, Next Stop Allegheny County Council

The Allegheny County Board of Health on Wednesday voted unanimously to approve long-sought changes to local air pollution regulations aimed at reducing particulate matter in the Mon Valley during periods of stagnant weather patterns which are often a driver of subpar air quality and exceedances of state and federal standards.

Preceding the BOH vote was a special meeting of the Allegheny County Air Advisory Committee earlier this week, where minor language tweaks were presented and Air Quality Chief Jayme Graham told members: The Mon Valley Episodic Weather regulation garnered more than 400 comments – all but two of which were in favor of the new rules.

The committee – which includes GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini – voted unanimously to recommend approval of the new rules.

The regulation will require facilities in the defined Mon Valley area that produce more than 6.5 tons of pm2.5 annually and/or more than 10 tons of pm10 annually to create and submit to ACHD “Mitigation Plans” for periods when poor air quality is forecast. 

Please note that ACHD predicts this will affect 18 facilities in the 32 listed municipalities.

During the “Watch” phase, facilities such as U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works must conduct basic checks to ensure equipment is in good working order but also ensure they have adequate staff to take actions required under the “Warning” phase. Once a “Warning” is issued, facilities must undertake the actions listed in the mitigation plans they filed with ACHD. The specific actions will be catered to each facility and approved on a case-by-case basis.

Although the bulk of the regulation addresses industrial sources of particulate matter pollution, the proposed change will also ban all wood-burning activities when a Mon Valley Air Pollution Watch or Warning has been issued in the defined municipalities.

“This regulation isn’t perfect. But in this instance, progress trumps perfection,” Filippini said. “We have to start somewhere – and as soon as possible – because these poor-air episodes happen too frequently and impact the health of too many to further delay its implementation.”

GASP also submitted formal public comments to the Board of Health. Here are Filippini’s full remarks read before the board:

“Good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony today. My name is Rachel Filippini and I’m the executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution. While we have some lingering concerns about the effectiveness of the Mon Valley Air Pollution Episode Rule, we support moving it forward at this time.

We appreciate that this regulation, as is, should help the ACHD Air Program’s stated goal to limit the frequency and strength of PM2.5 exceedances, but believe it will fail to address health impacts that the Environmental Protection Agency shows could exist with very high, short-term concentrations of fine particulate matter.

We urge ACHD to continue – as they move forward – to examine the data to ensure public health is protected in the Mon Valley. We know that patterns of PM2.5 concentrations in the Mon Valley are unique and simply relying on the NAAQS averaging time might not be sufficient to protect public health.

This regulation will require major and minor sources of fine particulate matter pollution like U.S. Steel to create and submit to ACHD for approval a two-tiered action plan to be implemented when these watches and warnings are issued. 

The crux of the regulation is really going to be in the plans submitted by industry, how effective those plans are in reducing emissions, and how well they are enforced by the ACHD. If the plans aren’t effective how quickly can they be modified to ensure public health is protected on these days?

Although the bulk of the regulation addresses industrial sources of particulate matter pollution, the proposed change will also ban all wood-burning activities when a Mon Valley Air Pollution Watch or Warning has been issued in the defined municipalities.

A key component of this regulation is going to be clear and timely communication to the public and municipalities about any issued watches or warnings. While we understand that the ACHD did not want to dictate the specific messaging within the regulation itself, it will be critical for them to utilize a broad array of messaging strategies in order to reach everyone. We encourage the department to keep in mind that many in the impacted area do not have access to the Internet, so messaging should also be made available through landline messaging.

Thank you.

GASP thanks the Board of Health for its yes vote, as well as the dozens of residents who joined us in imploring members to support the regulation.

The Mon Valley Episodic Weather regulation next heads to Allegheny County Council for approval. Check back, we’ll keep you posted.

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