Reid Frazier of The Allegheny Front contributed to the reporting.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is cutting the allowable level of soot pollution in the air by 25%: The finalized rule means that air quality in parts of Allegheny County, including the Mon Valley, would be out of compliance, based on 2021 data from the Allegheny County Health Department.
Exposure to fine particles in the air has long-term health implications, including lung cancer and heart disease. The Biden administration said the new standard will prevent up to 4,500 premature deaths and 290,000 lost workdays, yielding up to $46 billion in net health benefits by 2032.
This is a bold move by the White House and EPA toward protecting the public from the adverse health effects of air pollution, said James Fabisiak, the director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities.
“It appears that public health considerations outweighed the convenience of setting a higher, more easily achievable limit,” said Fabisiak.
Environmental groups such as the PennEnvironment and the Pittsburgh-based Breathe Project praised the rule for its public health benefits. The latter called on the Allegheny County Health Department to produce “stringent permits for major sources of pollution, like the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works.”
The Allegheny County Health Department told WESA that its Air Quality Program team is reviewing the updated EPA standard and looks forward to working with all stakeholders to achieve this new goal.
Allegheny County only recently attained the EPA’s current standard of 12 micrograms of soot per cubic meter of air, in 2021. The county’s highest pollution area, Liberty, would fail the new standard of 9 micrograms per cubic meter.
Arguably, the region’s most consequential stakeholder is the aforementioned Clairton Coke Works, which is Allegheny County’s largest single source of particle pollution. In an email statement, U.S. Steel notes that less than five years ago, the EPA determined that the existing standard for particle pollution was sufficient and protective of human health and the environment.
“This rule contradicts those findings,” the company said in its statement. “We are committed to working with the EPA to ensure that this rule balances the environmental and industrial needs of the region.”
The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to review standards for particulate matter and five other “criteria” pollutants periodically. The new standard was arrived at after a lengthy scientific review, the EPA said.
In 2021, the Biden administration decided to reconsider the soot rule set by the Trump administration, which held the standard to 12 micrograms per cubic meter, even though the agency’s own scientists recommended a stronger threshold.
Industry groups railed against the decision, saying that it would impose difficult restrictions on polluting industries.
“Today’s announcement is the latest in a growing list of short-sighted policy actions that have no scientific basis and prioritize foreign energy and manufacturing from unstable regions of the world over American jobs, manufacturing, and national security,” said Will Hupman, vice president of downstream policy for the American Petroleum Institute.
“As we review the final standard, we will consider all our options,” he said in a statement.
A U.S. Steel spokesperson said that the lowered particle pollution standard will not impact Nippon Steel Corporation’s acquisition of the company. Last year, the Japanese conglomerate agreed to buy U.S. Steel for $14.9 billion.
At one time U.S. Steel was the largest steel corporation in the country as well as Pittsburgh’s largest private employer — today it’s 16th, ranking behind universities, hospitals and a health insurance company.
“We’ll work to remind U.S. Steel and government regulators that good jobs and clean air are not mutually exclusive or impossible if we work together for the benefit of our community as a whole,” said Bernie Hall* of the United Steelworkers, the union that represents U.S. Steel employees.
Karen Clay, who researches environmental economics and health at Carnegie Mellon University, said she anticipates that the EPA rule will result in some job losses within Allegheny County due to the costs of implementing it. But dollar-for-dollar, the new standard will be more economically beneficial as it will lead to a healthier overall population, she said.
“I think that this is something that is going to be great,” she said.