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GASP to Allegheny County Board of Health: Leverage Your Authority & Demand More From ACHD

The Allegheny County Board of Health meeting’s public comment period Wednesday was dominated by residents who expressed their concern over various air quality issues, with some speaking out about recent bad-air episodes while others addressed the draft operating permit for U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, as well as a lack of information from the Air Quality Program regarding recent regulation changes.

GASP Executive Director Patrick Campbell was among those in attendance, telling the board it must do all it can to encourage more robust and proactive communications from the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) during periods of poor air quality that do not trigger a Mon Valley Air Quality Watch and/or Mon Valley Air Quality Warning.

For those not familiar with the new Mon Valley Air Pollution Episode Rule, you can get all the info you need here.

Here’s what Patrick told the board:

Good afternoon. I’m Patrick Campbell, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution, an environmental watchdog nonprofit serving the region since 1969. Thank you for the opportunity to address you today.

Over the past two weeks, GASP has heard an overwhelming number of terrible air quality stories from residents. Some told us about needing to place pillows around doors and windows to keep pungent air from seeping in, about asthma attacks that have become more frequent, and the all-too-regular and very real fear about what they’re breathing in when they walk out the front door in the morning.

These kinds of stories are common during short-term episodes of poor air quality and days during which H2S concentrations exceed the PA 24-hour-average standard. So far this year, there have been seven days during which H2S exceeded that standard at Allegheny County Health Department’s air quality monitor in Liberty. Over the past 10 years, Pennsylvania’s H2S standard was exceeded on 455 days.

As Allegheny County’s appointed authority on matters of public health, you know that exposure to low concentrations of H2S may cause irritation to the eyes, nose, or throat. It may also cause difficulty breathing for some asthmatics. The EPA says it can cause headaches, poor memory, tiredness, and balance problems. 

We’ve advised residents to make odor complaints to ACHD. We’ve asked them to sign petitions and show up to share their experiences with you during meetings just like these. And they have. They have done everything that responsible citizens should do.

The response to these complaints has been mostly silence from ACHD and this board. And that has to change. While GASP appreciates that Pennsylvania’s hydrogen sulfide standard is regulatory in nature, H2S exposure still has health impacts that ACHD could – and should – help educate residents about in a proactive way.

Right now, ACHD issues a daily air quality forecast and dispersion report nearly every day late in the morning after residents have left their homes. GASP is asking ACHD to consider issuing that report earlier in the morning, as well as supplementing that already existing resource to reflect that day’s early-morning conditions, what people can do to reduce their risk of exposure, and when conditions are expected to improve.

And we are asking this board to do what it can to encourage that communication because it’s what Allegheny County residents deserve. Again: Residents have been doing everything that they can to help improve their own health. But now they need YOU – the board members appointed to help protect public health – to do everything that YOU can. That means leveraging your authority and demanding more from ACHD. The time is now, particularly as the Air Quality Program is working to rehaul its communication strategy.

In other business, the board voted unanimously to send ACHD’s revised coke oven regulations to public comment. Prior to that vote, the Air Quality Program shared several slides with more information about the newest proposed changes to the regulation, as well as a ton of background information:


The meeting, which was live-streamed on ACHD’s Facebook page, can be viewed in its entirety here:

Editor’s Note: Not familiar with the coke oven regulations? Here’s what you need to know.

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Group Against Smog and Pollution