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Are yinz breathing easy? The road to cleaner air in southwestern PA

Edgar Thomson works in Braddock.

The visible blanket of smoke from our steel days may have dissipated, but our region’s air continues to rank among the worst in the nation.

Residents of the 10-county region of southwestern Pennsylvania have a cancer risk ranging from twice, to as high as 20 times that of those living outside our region. Worse yet, Allegheny County is among the hardest hit and is ranked in the top 2 percent of U.S. counties with the most hazardous air pollutants.

Air pollution especially affects children and those with respiratory issues like asthma. For example, in 2011, students in the South Allegheny School District, downwind from U.S. Steel Corp’s Clairton Coke Works, were reported to have asthma rates 300 to 400 percent higher than national averages.

 “The air in Pittsburgh is a complex problem,” says Rachel Filippini, executive director at the Group Against Smog and Pollution. “We’re down wind of pollution sources in the region, but still two-thirds of the pollution comes from internal sources within southwestern Pennsylvania.”

Though a big cause of air pollution in our region comes from industries including natural gas development and coke processing, citizens play a role too. From driving, to using outdated technology to heat our homes, the people of southwestern Pa. need to take stock of their habits. Luckily, coalitions such as the Breathe Project and the Group Against Smog and Pollution are forming to help create awareness about and thereby improve our air quality.

“That’s why we work on this issue. It has direct effects on public health,” she says. “Air pollution makes people sick. Clean air is all relative. It’s not realistic to think there will ever be a safe level of air pollution. It’s not about achieving a number on a monitor. It’s about being able to open your windows any day of the year or play outside without it being hazardous to your health.”

Industry’s role in air pollution
While many of our pollution sources don’t vary much from the pollution sources you’d find in other cities, Pittsburgh is a unique region due to the amount of natural gas development, power-generating facilities and coke processing plants that make for an especially distinctive and harmful cocktail of pollutants.

While many industries in the region understand the threats of air pollution to our communities, there are always the outliers who push-back or refuse to do more than the minimum.

“Pittsburgh isn’t any different than other cities as far as push back from industry,” says Filippini. “There will always be those who only do the minimum required by law. There are many others though who understand that investing in clean technology may have upfront cost, but will overall improve the bottom line.”

When a company is suspected of going below the minimum requirements for pollutants, Filippini says that sometimes legal action will result.

“We’ve filed a citizen’s suit against Shenango on Neville Island,” she says. “They are a company we need to push to clean up their act.”

Monitoring our region’s air quality
Non-profits like the Group Against Smog and Pollution work alongside the Allegheny County Department of Health (ACHD) to monitor and manage air quality. ACHD’s Air Quality/Pollution Control Program is responsible for protecting the public’s health by regulating air pollutants within Allegheny County, enforcing federal pollution standards, and permitting for indistrustrial sources of air pollution.

The Air Quality/Pollution Control Program keeps tabs on the many industrial and commercial companies that emit pollutants into our atmosphere through site inspections and through data gathered from air quality monitors stationed throughout the county. The program has 19 standard air monitors and a handful of special monitors that are used for special situations like monitoring air quality near Marcellus shale drilling sites.

“We monitor different pollutants at different locations,” says Jaymie Graham, the program’s Air Quality Chief. “Our monitors measure as little as one chemical or as many as 20.”

The data collected from these monitors is public. Residents can access hourly data on the ACHD website.

To help ensure that companies are doing their part to minimize pollution, the Air Quality/Pollution Control Program also conducts regular site inspections.

“Nobody wants to pollute, but everyone has concerns about their business and bottom line,” she says. “We have inspectors out every day at different sites and plants are required to keep monthly reports. A lot of evaluation is going on.”

Resident-created pollution
It’s important to note that not all of the blame for poor air quality rests on the shoulders of industry. The Air Quality/Pollution Control Program also works to regulate pollution created by residents both through regulation and incentives.

For example, the program has hosted a Wood Stove Bounty Program where residents are encouraged to turn in their old wood burning stoves in exchange for $200 in gift cards.

“We’re really pleased with the Wood Stove Bounty Program,” says Graham. “The goal is to get these stoves out of houses and storage sheds so they aren’t used ever again, especially older stoves that produce a lot of smoke. We’ve collected around 100 stoves so far with the program.”

There have also been incentives for turning in old gasoline lawnmowers in exchange for a rebate to buy a new electric mower.
On the regulation side, among enforcing its already existing policy, the Air Quality/Pollution Control Program is currently working on changing open burning regulations.

“There are 20 different chemicals emitted from the combustion of wood. We’d prefer people burn no wood at all, but if you are going to do it, do it responsibly,” says Graham. “Most of the proposed changes in regulation are a matter of being a good neighbor and include specifics on how big a fire can be or how close it can be to a property line. ”

Car emissions are another contributor to pollution, especially diesel vehicles that have particularly toxic particle emissions. Graham says that the levels of automobile emissions in downtown are so high that it creates air quality issues for communities that are downwind.

“Downwind of Pittsburgh, the ozone pollution is worse because of all of the vehicles downtown,” she says, adding that the air coming into town is already poor as it comes in from Ohio or West Virginia and then downtown adds additional pollutants into the mix as it continues to downwind communities.

To help curb this problem, Graham suggests residents keep their automobiles well-tuned to keep emissions minimal.

Looking to a future of cleaner air
Thanks to increased enforcement of industry and increased national regulations regarding air quality, Graham says particulate pollution has gone down in recent years.

“Particulate levels are much less than they were five or even 10 years ago,” she says. “The city and region as a whole has done well, but we still have a good ways to go. We should be proud of what’s happened so far, but not let it stop us from continuing to move forward.”

Filippini agrees that progress has been made, but says even with that progress our air quality is still among the worst in the nation, leaving much room for improvement.

“Pittsburgh is a wonderful city with a lot of great amenities,” Filippini says. “But air quality holds us back. People that want to relocate here think about air quality. Businesses looking to relocate here think about it too. Other cities have had more progress more quickly, so we could definitely be more aggressive with improving our air. Every local government official needs to have air quality on their radar because it’s affecting their constituents’ health.”

To learn more about the air quality in our region, visit www.breatheproject.org or www.achd.net/air/index.php

To learn how you can get involved in helping Pittsburgh clean its air, visit www.gasp-pgh.org
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