LCAN to Allegheny County Health Department: “Do something!”

Dec. 26 2019 PurpleAir.com screenshot of Lawrenceville and nearby areas
A screenshot of the PurpleAir.com network of PM 2.5 monitors in Lawrenceville (the 120 and 134 readings on the upper left) and nearby parts of Pittsburgh on Dec. 26, 2019.

As you likely heard or noticed, Pittsburgh-area air quality, particularly in Lawrenceville, was terrible in December. Air monitor readings at the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) Liberty monitor in Clairton were frequently at or near the worst in the country.

In Lawrenceville there were very high readings of PM 2.5 – hazardous particles (“particulate matter”) that are tiny enough to be absorbed into our bloodstream after being inhaled. It’s unclear if those readings were mainly due to what was spewing out of Clairton Coke Works.

What is certain is four things:

1) Clairton Coke Works is a primary source of air pollution in the county’s airshed. The plant has regularly violated pollution limits in its many decades of operation. It and nine other industrial sources comprise the Toxic Ten, which put out more than 70% of the air pollution from all industrial sources in the county. Two of the Toxic Ten, McConway & Torley and Pressure Chemical, are in Lawrenceville.

2) Our county’s air quality has repeatedly received poor ratings from the American Lung Association, and we were one of only 10 U.S. counties to get all Fs in ALA’s yearly evaluation in 2019. Allegheny County air pollution puts us in the top 2% for risk of cancer.

3) The smog that befell Pittsburgh and the county for six days was due to a temperature inversion. This change in weather allows a warm air mass to trap a cold air mass close to the ground along with all the air pollution that would otherwise blow away. Some say climate change will make temperature inversions much more frequent.

4) Lawrenceville and everyone in the county, particularly folks in Clairton and those most exposed to and vulnerable to toxic air, need more accountability and responsiveness from county government.

That’s why LCAN joined fellow members of the Breathe Collaborative on January 10 in calling out the ongoing inadequate response from County Exec. Rich Fitzgerald, County Council, and the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) to air pollution, and for a qualified permanent director of the ACHD. ACHD is the government agency that has the authority to regulate local air pollution in order to protect public health. All of our county officials must do much more to take this mandate seriously.

Christine Brill delivers her testimony to the Allegheny County Board of Health on Jan. 10. Click to view the video (via Inversion Documentary).
Christine Brill delivers her testimony to the Allegheny County Board of Health on Jan. 10. Click to view the video on Facebook (via Inversion Documentary).

The following testimony was delivered at an ACHD Board meeting that day by Christine Brill, a 20-year resident of Lawrenceville and a founding member of Lawrenceville Clean Air Now (LCAN).

I live less than a mile from two of Allegheny County’s Toxic Ten polluters: Pressure Chemical and McConway & Torley. I am deeply concerned about pollution in our region and the health of my family. I signed up to speak in December, when Pittsburgh’s 2019 Toxic Christmas Smog was still thick in my memory.

Pittsburgh’s 2019 Toxic Christmas Smog reminds us how bad it can get when polluters conduct business as usual even when EXISTING technology and meteorological analysis predict temperature inversions for the region. Early Christmas week, informed people – notably, not the ACHD – accurately posted on social media sites a warning that local air quality would be disastrous for 5-6 days. It was.

I am grateful for Interim Director Ron Sugar’s announcement about taking action to limit emissions during weather-related events. But he implied that regulations and weather technology do not currently exist. This is an excuse for inaction and delay.

I will now read from a portion of the Pennsylvania State Implementation Plan (SIP) for the Allegheny County Health Department, Article XXI, Part F, Regulation 2106.01, Air Pollution Episodes:
a. General. The purpose of this Part is to provide the Department with the authority to decrease the severity and duration of air pollution episodes by requiring staged reductions in the emission of air contaminants and general reductions in activities which place demands upon air pollution sources or which result in generation of air contaminants either directly or indirectly, in conjunction with air quality measurements and meteorological forecasts. The goal of these reductions is the avoidance of conditions which may result in significant harm to human health or
welfare.
Effective Date: 10/20/1995

According to the EPA website, this has been ON THE BOOKS since 1995. What are we waiting for? I’m not a lawyer but it seems like the Health Department already has power and authority – it has simply chosen to do little to nothing.

Prioritize air quality regulation. It affects YOU! It affects everyone in our region. DO SOMETHING! Your INACTION speaks louder than words.

Get Involved

Want to be a part of LCAN’s efforts to make the air in our neighborhood and the county safe to breathe?

  • Learn more on our page.
  • Come to our next monthly meeting on Saturday, Feb. 8 at 10am in the lower level of Lawrenceville Library.