Allegheny County is in compliance with federal clean air standards for the first time ever, according to initial data from the Allegheny County Health Department.
Improved air quality levels measured in 2020 dropped at the county’s most polluted monitor, near U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, below the EPA’s threshold for particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide and ozone.
The numbers are from preliminary data the county is verifying to send to the EPA for certification.
The Allegheny Front’s Reid Frazier and Kara Holsopple discuss how these gains were made, and if they will last.
LISTEN to their conversation
How did the county finally meet the federal ambient air quality standards?
2020 was the year of the pandemic, and that led to less air pollution from car traffic and power plants. But the county says it would have met those federal air quality standards even without COVID-19.
County officials say they’ve implemented stronger fines and stricter enforcement and that those were the main causes of improvements. They say that their initial plan was to meet the air quality standards by the end of 2021, but they actually met it by the end of 2020.
The county points to a notice of violation in 2017 against U.S. Steel’s. Edgar Thomson works in Braddock that sought to clamp down on its emissions. The county also has a new policy for increasing air pollution fines. They say that those things seem to have worked.
Which pollutants are included these standards and how do they impact people’s bodies?
The EPA has six what are called criteria air pollutants. These don’t include every single type of air pollution, but these are some of the big ones. They are particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, lead and ground-level ozone.
EPA sets national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for these pollutants, which are measured in the outdoor air, not from a smokestack or tailpipe. If you are passing these EPA standards, like Allegheny County is now, that means, according to the EPA scientists, your air is in an acceptable range for safety to breathe.
All of these pollutants cause various health effects: heart and lung diseases and have been shown to lead to premature death. Air pollution kills seven million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
But there are also other types of pollution, including a class of pollutants called hazardous air pollutants that are also very bad for you and can cause things like cancer, that are not necessarily included in these criteria pollutants.
What do environmentalists say about this milestone?
Environmentalists have been talking about the pollution in Allegheny County for many years. The first thing they’ll tell you is that, well, this is good news. But they’ll also tell you there’s still a lot of work to be done. They’ll point out that there are places and times in the county where the air is still not safe to breathe.
Zack Barber, a clean air advocate at the group Penn Environment, said the numbers show that the county is showing progress. But he said the U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works is still a large source of air pollution, like benzene, which is a known carcinogen, and hydrogen sulfide, which is that rotten egg smell. These pollutants are not part of the ambient air quality standards.
“The health department has definitely stepped things up, but to really tackle some of the worst and most toxic pollution that’s making people sick in the county, there’s a lot more work that needs to be done,” he said.
Environmental groups will also point out that the EPA’s own scientists say that the current EPA’s pollution limits should be tougher. In December, the Trump administration decided to keep its current standard for soot pollution, that’s fine particulate matter at 12 micrograms per cubic meter, even though their scientists said it really should be more like eight or 10 micrograms per cubic meter. Now, just as a reference, the county’s current three year average for fine particulate matter is 11, so between that 10 and 12 mark, which means the county would not meet that tougher standard.
What does Allegheny County executive Rich Fitzgerald say about this?
Rich Fitzgerald said it’s really good news for the county and is the result not just of the work that the Allegheny County Health Department has done, but also companies and local groups that have been working on these issues over many years. He acknowledged that the county is still subject to criticism, and that there are still unhealthy levels of air pollution at certain times and in certain places. He said overall it makes the region more livable.
“For someone like myself or people from the Chamber of Commerce or the mayor or others, [we]can really point to this [as making the county] a great place to do business. This is a great place to move to,” he said.
How did air inversions and U.S. Steel’s Christmas Eve fire of 2018 impact the county meeting federal standards?
The county’s compliance with the federal ambient air quality standards came despite the fact that the county had several events over the last few years that made air quality really bad here in Pittsburgh.
During the week of Christmas in 2019 and again this November, air inversions caused several days of air quality alerts in the Pittsburgh region. Air inversions are weather patterns that trap air pollution close to the ground and happen very often in winter here in western Pennsylvania. Inversions will become more frequent with climate change.
Over Christmas in 2018, a fire at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works knocked out that plant’s air pollution controls for several months, which led to lots of pollution, lots of air quality complaints and lots of fines. The plant has been fined more than $5 million since 2015 for air quality violations.
U.S. Steel had been talking about investing over $1 billion to modernize their operations in the Mon Valley at Clairton and at the Edgar Thomson plant in Braddock. The company has since walked that back because they lost a lot of money last year. 2020 was a bad year for the steel industry, what with the pandemic and all. They’re now not sure if they really want to spend all that money in the Mon Valley. Those improvements would have lowered air pollution from those plants significantly.
Will this improvement in air quality in the Pittsburgh area last?
The county says that the air quality gains will last. There are some things that if you were to look at the numbers might give you some pause, though, thinking about when the economy comes back and we have more economic activity.
A big cause of air pollution in Pittsburgh is the air that comes into the region from upwind of us. Air pollution data from Pennsylvania’s power plants from last year show a dramatic drop in air pollution from coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania, down 40 and 50 percent.
Some of that is due to plants not running as often or putting in more air pollution controls. Some plants just stopped operating, like Bruce Mansfield Power Plant, which closed in late 2019. It was at one time the biggest coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania and was directly upwind of Pittsburgh in Beaver County. Now there’s no pollution coming from Bruce Mansfield.
Vehicle traffic was also down in 2020. One hopes that all of these gains are durable. But you have to wonder what will happen when coal-fired power plants ramp back up, when the economy improves and what will happen when people start commuting to their offices more. I guess a lot of that remains to be seen. But overall, in a year of bad news, we’ll take a little bit of good news.