News Analysis: Allegheny County Health Department Slow To Adopt Air Quality Task Force Recommendations

Investigative reports recently drew attention to regional deaths from illnesses frequently caused by poor air quality. An environmental group has issued an ultimatum to the Allegheny County Health Department director to step down if the department doesn't implement recommendations that were supposed to be in place last June. The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray and host Jennifer Szweda Jordan talk about the ramifications.

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OPEN:Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigative reports recently drew attention to the number of deaths in the region from illnesses frequently caused by poor air quality. †A statewide environmental group then issued an ultimatum to the head of the Allegheny County Health Department to step down if the department doesn't revisit and implement recommendations that were supposed to be in place last June.

The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray is here. Welcome...

JORDAN: Bring us up to speed...

MURRAY: Over the years, industry has complained that the county air program takes too long to issue permits and some of the county's regulations are more stringent than the state's, making it hard to attract new industry to the region. †On the other hand, environmental groups have complained too. †

JORDAN:So the county put together a task force to get business, development, and environmentalists to hash out the next steps. What did they come up with?

MURRAY: They decided the county should keep its air pollution program but modify some of its operations. The report called for the Air Bureau to conduct compliance inspections on major air pollution sources such as power plants each year and inspections of minor sources every two years. There are thousands of minor sources--a couple examples are gas boilers used in schools or auto body shops.

JORDAN: Did the health department implement that recommendation?

MURRAY: I spoke with Jim Thompson who manages the Air Bureau. He says they inspect major air pollution sources more than once a year. But he says an inspection of all minor sources every two years is a poor use of resources because there are so many small emitters and because of the additional money it would take to hire extra inspectors.

JORDAN: The task force has also called for changes in issuing emission permits.

MURRAY: The recommendations call for streamlining the permitting process to end a backlog. †In some cases it could take a couple years to issue air permits. The county health department says that had a lot of outstanding major source permits, but now they have reduced that number so they're now down to considering four permits.

JORDAN: The task force also proposed overhauling the county permit appeal process. What did the task force call for there?

MURRAY: Appeals now go to Health Department Executive Director Dr. Bruce Dixon. The task force said permit appeals should be sent to the state Environmental Hearing Board which the report says would make the appeals process more efficient and transparent. †This would require a change in law.

JORDAN: †Where does this stand?

MURRAY: The county health department hasn't pushed for a new law. Jim Thompson agrees that there should be an independent review of permit appeals but he contends it doesn't have to be the state Environmental Hearing Board. †Thompson says the health department's lawyer is currently writing a proposal for an independent board similar to the body used by the health department in PhiladelphiaÖ Philly and Allegheny County are the only communities in the state to have their own set of air quality laws.

JORDAN: †Probably the most contentious recommendation called for a total rethinking of the county air pollution rules.

MURRAY: Yes.. to replace county rules with state air rules to make them easier to understand and more streamlined. The task force also said the county should figure out where its regulations are more stringent than the state's and keep those regulations.

JORDAN: What would that include?

MURRAY: That would include regulations to bring the county into compliance with federal air quality standards. †Those pollutants include †particulate matter. †The rules also cover air issues the state doesn't regulate like asbestos removal, abrasive sand blasting, and lead and coke oven emissions.

JORDAN: How far does Allegheny County say they have come with the re-write?

MURRAY: There's been no re-writing of the county air regulations. According to Jim Thompson, the re-write process is very expensive and the health department doesn't have the money. Thompson personally believes that the county regulations should stay intact with some clarification. †He says the current county rules haven't discouraged development in the region. †Thompson says US Steel is planning a billion dollar upgrade at their coke works. †Allegheny Ludlum is constructing 1.2 billion dollar rolling mill, and a large solar mirror†manufacturing company finished an installation in the county.

JORDAN: The environmental group GASP--Group Against Smog and Pollution--also was for keeping the county regs intact....weren't they?

MURRAY: Yes. They say, leave the county regulations in place but make them clearer. Penn Future, another group, sees it a little differently. †They think that the county should adopt DEPís rules and †maintain the more stringent county regulations. †Heather Sage who is Penn Future's vice president and part of the task force, says there is too much redundancy in state and county rules.

JORDAN: Where has Allegheny County made the most progress with task force recommendations?

MURRAY: Jim Thompson says in the operating permitting process, steps toward improvements in facilities and in technology. A consultant has been hired to establish a permit tracking system. †Heather Sage with Penn Future says that the Air Program needs more autonomy within the department and has pushed for the Environmental Air Quality Task Force to reconvene within the month to follow up on the implementation of their recommendations.

JORDAN: Thanks for the update.

MURRAY: Sure. For more information about the air quality in Pittsburgh and the task force recommendations, listeners can take a look at our web site alleghenyfront.org