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GASP, Fellow Environmental Activists & Residents Tell Board of Health: You’re Not Taking Air Quality Issues Seriously – Do Better

Longtime Clairton resident Art Thomas didn’t mince words Wednesday when he spoke before the Allegheny County Board of Health, telling members that if he was a teacher, he would assign the health department an F grade for air quality enforcement.

Mr. Thomas was one of many who spoke out at the meeting to demand better from public health officials on air quality matters, asking them to improve the frequency and substance of public communications surrounding air pollution issues and to beef up efforts to stem emissions from the county’s industrial bad actors – with U.S. Steel being called out specifically.

GASP’s Executive Director Patrick Campbell joined Mr. Thomas and others to speak out Wednesday. Here’s what he told board of health members:

At the start of this new year, I suspect we are all even more keenly aware of the preciousness and precariousness of life. I suspect you already know that. And I suspect that is why each of us recognizes the burden of responsibility to the world around us, to our loved ones, to ourselves, and to the respected institutions that mirror our passions and priorities. 

Those of you sitting on this board made a decision to volunteer your time and talent to advise the county on issues related to public health. You knew you could help make a difference and your charge among other things is, “to prevent or fix conditions that constitute a threat to public health.” 

While we have made some progress, Allegheny County residents still suffer unhealthy air quality far too often for officials to take a victory lap. Residents have stood before you many times telling their stories. They’ve told you about rushing their children to the emergency room for acute asthma symptoms, about waking up gasping for air in the middle of the night, about worrying whether or not to let their kids play outside on days when air quality is particularly bad. 

It’s a tragedy because life is far too precious and precarious to miss a single minute, fearful of poor air quality. I’m here again to ask you to take action on an issue that’s had very real effects on quality of life and public health: The alarming number of H2S exceedances that continue in the Mon Valley.

In 2021, there were 54 exceedances of PA’s 24-hour average for H2S at the Liberty monitor. There were 18 others at the North Braddock monitor. That’s more than twice the number of exceedances over 2020. Despite residents’ pleas for transparency, ACHD has remained silent. All the community knows is that ACHD issued an H2S-related enforcement action against U.S. Steel in April 2021. There’s been no communication about what’s causing the exceedances or what’s being done to stem them. No additional details have been released regarding that enforcement action, either. 

I am asking you today to do all you can to provide more frequent and substantive updates about what the department is doing to help ensure public health, residents’ health, and quality of life are protected.

It seems worth mentioning that we already have the first H2S exceedance in the books for 2022 at the Liberty monitor. The first of the year happened the day before the board of health meeting. We’ve got the skinny on that here.

Powerful testimony was also given by our friend mark Dixon, a local environmental activist and filmmaker who recently released the trailer for his upcoming documentary, “Inversion: Pittsburgh’s Unfinished Business of Pittsburgh Air.” Here’s what he had to say:

“Hello. My name is Mark Dixon and I live in Squirrel Hill South in Pittsburgh. Rachel Filippini recently left her role as Executive Director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), and I commend her for her service to our community. 

Oliver Morrison at PublicSource wrote an article about her departure and requested comment from Allegheny County. I am speaking up today out of concern for the deeply disappointing statement released by Amie Downs, spokesperson for County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. The statement highlights a profound and troubling misunderstanding of the essential role of community members and organizations in advocating for a clean environment. Per the PublicSource article, the county statement states re: it’s ‘increasingly aggressive measures.’ 

‘We also understand that for the activists, these actions and substantial progress will never be enough,’ the statement reads. ‘If there aren’t complaints and issues raised by those extremists, then they are less able to raise funds to continue their operations.

I was deeply disturbed by this negative characterization of community members as extremists. What I believe is actually happening is that community members are simply seeking clean air, and sometimes raise funds to hire professional staff, including lawyers, to ADDRESS issues that the County has not sufficiently resolved for DECADES.

Despite some air quality improvements, our region remains one of the most polluted in the nation. Furthermore, over 68,000 complaints have been submitted via the SmellPGH app since 2016, averaging over 900 per month – submitted for free by community members. 

Are we extremists if we don’t want to breathe foul-smelling SO2 or H2S emissions many times each month? Are we extremists if we don’t want to live with some of the worst air in the nation? Are we extremists if we don’t want especially young, poor, sick, or vulnerable populations to suffer from foul air? Are we extremists if we send money to an organization seeking to represent our interests to a county that celebrates lackluster progress and discounts the testimonies of countless residents clamoring for change? 

Perhaps most disappointing, however, is the utter silence of the ACHD leadership and board in response to this statement by the county. You may not have considered how offensive it is to be regarded as “extremists” by your own government when you just want to breathe clean air, but now you know. It is deeply offensive and troubling. 

I will yield the rest of my speaking time to the ACHD board so that you may consider a vote to formally register your disapproval of the language used by the County to characterize air quality advocates as extremists. Do you disapprove or not? Please discuss. And thank you for your consideration.

It’s also worth noting that board of health members did not choose to weigh in, moving on to the next speaker without any comment at all. But at the end of the meeting, Board Member Dr. Edith Shapira *did* take a moment to thank all who addressed the board.

We would be remiss if we didn’t also mention tremendous public comments from our friends at Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN), Breathe Project, and Clean Air Council. Paul Gough of the Pittsburgh Business Times has a great writeup on their poignant testimony – we encourage you to read it if you’re able. If you’re not able to access that story, no worries: You can read Breath Project Executive Director Matt Mehalik’s comments here. You can read ACCAN member Angelo Taranto’s comments here. And you can read CAC’s Jay Ting Walker’s comments here.

In other business:

  • Bogen provided an update on the newly enacted Mon Valley Air Pollution Episode rule, indicating that all 16 regulated facilities submitted the required mitigation plans and that Air Quality Program staff members were in the process of reviewing them. She noted the plans became effective upon submission but indicated that ACHD would provide guidance to operators if changes were required. 
  • She also told the board that ACHD expected U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works operating permit renewal to be posted for public comment by the end of the month and that a public hearing would be scheduled. Rest assured that GASP legal staff is ready to review the document and provide comments. Stay tuned, we’ll share more details on our blog when we have them.
  • Bogen said ACHD is still seeking candidates for the Deputy of Environmental Health position vacated by Jim Kelly in June. 
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  1. Mark Dixon says:

    Thanks for this summary! Another day, another testimony. It’s worth noting that Art Thomas is in the Inversion Documentary trailer at https://inversiondoc.com/ .

    1. Amanda Gillooly says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Mark!

      PS: I totally meant to link to the trailer in the blog. Thanks for the reminder – adding it now for good measure!!

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