Prove your humanity

This story comes from our partner, 90.5 WESA.

An audit of Allegheny County’s Clean Air Fund urges health department officials to put more money towards projects aimed at improving local air quality, and simplify the process by which money is distributed.

County Controller Corey O’Connor’s office released the audit’s findings on Tuesday.

“These funds are derived from fines for air quality violations that directly impact the communities where these industries are located,” O’Connor said in a statement accompanying the report. “That’s why it is critical — and the intention of the law that created the Clean Air Fund — that these communities are to benefit from additional projects to mitigate these harms. Our audit shows that the County has fallen far short of meeting this intent.”

Mon Valley leaders have $5M in U.S. Steel fines to spend, but little has gone to public health

The audit looked at spending from the fund in 2021, 2022 and the first nine months of 2023. Throughout that period, the fund maintained a balance of roughly $10 million, money provided by penalties and fees paid for by area polluters.

The fund is intended “solely to support activities related to the improvement of air quality within Allegheny County and to support activities which will increase or improve knowledge concerning air pollution, its causes, its effects, and the control thereof,” according to the rule that established it.

But only a small portion of the fund balance – between $157,565 to $704,586 – was spent during the years the audit reviewed. More money was spent on operating costs for county staff and “professional and technical expenditures,” which are permitted under the guidelines but, auditors wrote, “could have been paid with other money.”

Those costs were offset to some extent by new fines being deposited into the fund. But O’Connor argued the need for investment was urgent.

The money is “not being spent quick enough and it’s not being spent in communities that need it the most,” O’Connor said. “Why are we holding on to this money? Let’s get this money out as quick as we can to help these residents.”

Auditors said one hurdle is a complicated and opaque application process that the county health department, which administers the fund, has not communicated effectively, the authors said.

For example, those who wish to apply for project support from the Clean Air Fund must request information from the county’s Air Pollution Control Advisory Committee through an online form. Auditors reported that staff uses that process to pre-screen potential applicants, and ensure the proposed project meets fund requirements. But critics say it creates a bottleneck for legitimate projects.

Health department pushes back

In a multi-page response from the health department included in the audit, acting health department director Patrick Dowd pushed back strongly on the report’s conclusions.

“Audit findings aside, the ACHD has never stopped anyone from applying for the use of Clean Air Funds,” Dowd wrote.

He said the audit made no mention of efforts to improve the process undertaken during the period the auditors studied, like an enhanced effort to encourage community proposals for projects. He said those efforts led to an additional $2.29 million in grants approved by the Board of Health last September — money that was allocated outside the timeframe of O’Connor’s review. The audit also didn’t reflect the health department’s spending on pollution reduction through other funds and programs, he said.

The audit “omits important reforms and adoption of innovative practices” implemented while the audit was ongoing, including “at least $7.75 million dollars specifically to communities impacted by pollution.”

Dowd also questioned the audit’s downbeat assessment of the county’s overall air quality. He noted that many air-pollution concerns were caused by polluters upwind of the region, whose emissions were outside the health department’s control.

“Even when Allegheny County is meeting federal standards, which it is, it will remain in nonattainment [of federal goals] because Allegheny County is part of the larger regional area that transports pollutants across our boundaries,” Dowd wrote, referring specifically to ozone pollution emitted by cars, power plants and other industrial sources.

O’Connor’s report will likely be welcomed by some local activists.

“Community members can’t even figure out how to apply for the funds,” said Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project. Though Mehalik had not read the audit, he brought up many of the same issues highlighted in the report. And he said that Clean Air Fund money has mostly funded “small ball” efforts to address air pollution, like tree planting projects.

“Tree planting is a good thing. It’s not a bad thing,” he said. But “if you look at a bang-for-the-buck way of looking at it, tree planting is not one thing that is drastically improving, in the short term, the public health of residents impacted by air pollution.”

The fund came under scrutiny last year after the county health department’s Air Quality Program, which monitors and enforces air pollution regulations, sought to increase the portion of the Clean Air Fund it can use for its operating expenses. Officials sought to boost that level from 5% up to as much as 25% — a move that many advocates and community groups vocally opposed.

The proposal was not approved by the Board of Health. But O’Connor’s audit contends that because the county can tap a percentage of the fund balance for its own operating costs, it has an incentive to keep the fund balance as high as possible, rather than spending it down.

Dowd pushed back on that as well, noting that the county is not currently tapping the fund at all for operating expenses. But the health department did acknowledge some accounting errors, stemming from a failure to collect some penalties, and mistakenly placing others in different accounts.

Calls for more transparancy

O’Connor said the recommendations are meant to ensure that fines paid by pollutants actually fund air quality improvements in local communities. He also noted the importance of sharing information with county leaders, including County Executive Sara Innamorato, who pledged to address the county’s poor air quality and high asthma rates while on the campaign trail last year.

“I do know that the executive is very concerned about air quality and health in this county. And I think that’s why the timing of this is beneficial so that we can all work together to solve these issues,” O’Connor said.

Mihalik called for more transparency in how the funds are allocated, but he also said the Clean Air Fund amounts to a “pay to pollute” model in which polluters pay a fine rather than make lasting changes to their operations.

“By considering more strident penalties for an organization or a business that regularly violates the Clean Air Act,” he said, “we could see some real changes and health improvements for people in the Mon Valley and all of Allegheny County.”

He noted that in places like the Mon Valley, many of those who live closest to polluters are poor, people of color, and the elderly — all groups at higher risk to the health impacts of poor air quality.

“People’s families have been disrupted from many years of living in communities with high levels of air pollution,” Mehalik said. “By not using those funds to mitigate and improve quality of life for residents in the Mon Valley, these injustices have been ongoing for some time and they continue to go on.”

“While the Health Department has taken steps to improve the Fund in the past few years, there is still more to do to ensure expenditures are effective and impactful,” Innamorato said in a statement. “We look forward to reviewing the findings of the audit and working closely with the Allegheny County Health Department, stakeholders, and communities that have suffered the harms of air pollution to ensure the Fund is used for its stated purpose of improving air quality in Allegheny County.”