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Despite an improvement in particulate matter levels at a key Allegheny County Health Department air monitor last year, the county is still not meeting federal air quality standards.

A new plan from county health officials models how the area can meet those standards by 2021. It takes into account emissions reductions from the closure of some industrial plants and equipment upgrades at others.

Particulate matter can cause heart and lung problems. It comes from a variety of sources, including diesel engines, wood burning and industrial plants such as U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, which has faced lawsuits and penalties for recent emissions violations.

The plant is near an air quality monitor in the borough of Liberty.

“If you look at that air quality data and you look at all of our monitors, they have all been trending down but since 2014 the Liberty monitor has been trending up,” said Jim Kelly, deputy director for the department’s environmental health program.

The monitor showed particulate matter levels improving last year, which Kelly attributes to several factors: better weather conditions; fewer inversions, when cold air is held close to the ground by warmer air above, which can trap pollution; as well as a drop in emissions of coke oven gas from the Clairton plant. But the monitor needs to meet federal standards over three years for the area to comply with the law.

The agency’s Board of Health approved a draft of the plan for public comment on Wednesday. It’s part of the state’s plan under the federal Clean Air Act, and it will ultimately be submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency.

At the board’s meeting, one environmental advocate urged the health department to make the plan stronger by setting tougher levels for particulate matter rather than aiming to match federal standards.

Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, said the World Health Organization recommends stricter guidelines for particulate matter than what the federal government requires.

Kelly said the agency is not pursuing a more stringent plan because it might not stand up in court. He added that the agency is taking separate steps to improve air quality by updating regulations and cracking down on violations.

Still, Mon Valley residents who spoke out at Wednesday’s meeting called for more action.

“I live right across the river from the Clairton Works, and it’s so hard to breathe,” said Patricia Armstead-Daniels, who described black dust from the plant blowing toward her home. “I don’t open up my windows anymore because, let’s face it, I’m 68, and I can’t keep scrubbing windowsills every day.”

Kurt Barshick, general manager of U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works, gave an update on repairs following December’s fire that damaged equipment at the Clairton plant and prevented coke oven gas from going through its normal pollution controls. The desulfurization equipment came back online last month.

Before it did, sulfur dioxide levels at the Liberty monitor spiked several times.

“U.S. Steel continues to monitor the data from the local air monitors, including the Liberty monitor, and we’re encouraged by the SO2 data since the restart,” Barshick said.

The health department is expected to issue a penalty against the company for air quality violations related to the fire.

“There are 102 days of penalties across three plants and multiple emissions sources,” Kelly said. “This is a massive amount of data.”

He said the department is considering joining a lawsuit filed this week by two environmental groups against U.S. Steel in wake of December’s fire. That would bypass the department’s own administrative hearing process should U.S. Steel appeal the penalty, as the matter would be sorted out in federal court, Kelly said.

U.S. Steel Promises $1B in Upgrades to Mon Valley Plants

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WESA, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.