To be fair, the air in Allegheny County has gotten a lot better over the past couple decades. But when you’re still getting an ‘F’ rating from the American Lung Association and consistently making lists of the Top 25 most-polluted areas in the U.S., you can expect people are going to want to know what the deal is. Recently, we talked with Joe Minott, executive director of the nonprofit Clean Air Council, to get his take on why Pittsburgh’s march toward cleaner air has been such a slog.

The Allegheny Front: So catch us up: When it comes to air quality, where do we stand today?

Joe Minott: Well, the Allegheny County region still has a long way to go to clean up its air and maintain the federal health standards. And we’re talking really about two major pollutants. One is ozone-smog and the other is particulate matter, and they both have substantial impacts on public health. I think there is a problem with enforcement of polluting facilities in Allegheny County. When the county health department issues a permit, which allows a facility to release a certain level of pollution, there is a commitment by the industry to abide by those limits and there is a commitment by the health department to ensure the industry abides by those limits. And the public has a right, then, to rely on the health department to keep them safe. Right now, that is not working in the Pittsburgh region. Large facilities are in chronic violation of their permits, and the county health department does inadequate enforcement to get them back into compliance. And it gets worse because when environmental groups try to intervene to push industry, the county health department sort of jumps in front of them and settles cases in ways that do not protect public health.

AF: Can you give us an example of that?

JM: There are two great environmental groups in western Pennsylvania—GASP (Group Against Smog and Pollution) and Penn Future. Both of them filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue [over violations]. And on the 59th day, sort of at the end of the period when they could file their complaint, the Allegheny County Health Department entered into a very weak consent agreement with the polluting sources and blocked the ability of environmentalists to go to court.

LISTEN: “Who’s to Blame for Pittsburgh’s Bad Air?”

AF: Is it really that different from other health departments in other counties or in Philadelphia?

JM: That’s a good question. Certainly, across the nation and in Pennsylvania, there are good ones and some bad ones. In Philadelphia, generally, I think the city health department is pretty good. I mean, sometimes we’ve had to sue them or industry. But it is very rare for the health department to sort of jump in front of a citizen suit and try and settle the case—where that seems to be sort of the routine in western Pennsylvania.

AF: And the air is getting better here. For example, the Pittsburgh metro region did move off the 25 worst-polluted list when it comes to ozone. At 26th, now we’re just off that list. So, it’s not getting that much better.

JM: Well, there’s always room for improvement. And the thing that worries me is that as the science gets better, EPA has been tightening the standards. So there is a proposal now to tighten the ozone-smog standard for the nation. And that is going to be particularly problematic for places like Allegheny County, which already don’t meet the weaker standard.

AF: So how does the region get itself off these dirty air lists? What’s the thing that will make the most difference?

JM: Well, I think there are a couple things. I think there needs to be serious enforcement when industry does not comply with their permits. The second is there needs to be a revisiting of the actual regulations to see if they are tight enough that they will lead the county quickly into compliance with federal clean air laws. Then, there are some national initiatives that Pennsylvania DEP is already embracing. One of them is a commitment to move forward with the Clean Power Plan, which would reduce emissions from the power industry.

AF: And the Clean Power Plan involves burning more natural gas and less coal. Is that a good solution?

JM: Part of the problem is that our leaders talk about looking at “all of the options.” But that is a formula for the status quo. When you say we need to “do everything,” you’re essentially endorsing the infrastructure that already exists. And that is coal, natural gas and nuclear. And I think we need better leadership that looks at the job creation possibilities and the public health benefits of really moving toward renewable energy and energy efficiency—and make that the top goal.

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Joe Minott is executive director of the Clean Air Council, a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to protecting everyone’s right to breathe clean air. In response to this interview, Allegheny County Health Department Director Karen Hacker said in an email: “Since 2007, fine particulate concentrations have decreased by nearly 40 percent” and that the county is “on schedule to meet the regulatory deadlines for the ever-increasingly stringent Federal health standards.” Regarding the county’s recent consent agreement with U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, Hacker wrote: “Our most recent consent order will move US Steel to compliance or US Steel will suffer large financial consequences as well as consequences related to productivity. Throughout the consent order, all emissions that are in excess of standards will be monitored and heavily enforced.”