Advocates call on Allegheny County leaders to do more in fight for clean air

Clean air advocates gathered in downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday afternoon to push for more action against the region’s major industrial polluters.

The rally followed a string of poor air quality days in the region.

“Everyone deserves to be able to breathe clean air every day of the year,” said Zachary Barber, clean air advocate at Penn Environment. “Yet, sadly, as recent weeks have shown, residents of Allegheny are too often exposed to unhealthy levels of particulate pollution, airborne toxins and ozone…simply by breathing.”

Barber and other advocates applauded recent actions taken by the Allegheny County Health Department, but said more needs to be done.

In March, the department imposed a landmark $4.5 million fine on US Steel for alleged violations at the Clairton Coke Works for more than two years. The fine came three weeks after the company was fined $800,000 for pollution control and permit violations and $1.8 million for a hydrogen sulfide emissions violation.

Barber said the Department of Health needs to build on these recent measures.

“We need to see bigger and stronger penalties for pollution to make sure it is not economically profitable to pollute,” he said, noting that facilities must be brought into compliance with the Clean Air Act.

“If you’ve already had your car inspected and you don’t meet state standards, they’re not going to say, ‘Well, keep driving it,’ are they?” he said. “To get your car recertified, you have to meet the standards. It’s not fair that these industrial polluters aren’t held to the same standard.”

Last month, the American Lung Association ranked the Pittsburgh metro area, made up of 12 counties, as one of the worst metro areas for air quality, ranking it 14and worst in the country in terms of particulate pollution throughout the year. The county received a failing grade related to both ozone and fine particulate pollution.

The report considered data from 2018 to 2020 and is based on the number of air quality days that fall within the “unhealthy” range as defined by the Air Quality Index of the country. US Environmental Protection Agency.

Despite poor rankings and failures, air quality in the region has improved for the third year in a row, officials said. The ranking of the 14and is an improvement from last year when the county had the ninth-worst fine particle pollution.

“Dr. Bogen believes everyone has a right to clean air,” health department spokesperson Chris Togneri said after the meeting, referring to Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the department. “Under his leadership, air quality has been, and will continue to be, a primary focus of the Department of Health’s Air Quality Program.”

He pointed to changes made since Bogen took over the department in 2020, including the expansion of air quality enforcement staff and steep fines for emissions violations.

The attorneys walked from the steps of the City-County Building to the Allegheny County Courthouse, where the county board of health was meeting. Several spoke during public comments, calling on the council to do more to hold polluters accountable.

Megan Guza is editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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