Local industries resist Allegheny County's revised air toxics emission rules

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The already lengthy wait for new guidelines to control and reduce unhealthy toxic emissions from Allegheny County industrial sources could get longer.

A proposed update of the county's antiquated air toxics guidelines is on the board of health's Wednesday meeting agenda, appropriately listed under "old business."

But local industries and business groups have filed comments critical of the proposal and have lobbied county officials to delay or stop its passage by the board.

Donald Burke, dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, a health board member and chairman of the ad hoc county task force formed to update the guidelines, confirmed Friday that there have been "discussions" about postponing the vote.

If it were postponed, the next board meeting where it could be voted on is Nov. 7.

"I would go ahead now and vote on the new guidelines," Dr. Burke said. "They're scientifically sound and were achieved after reaching a consensus."

The proposal was produced after two years of meetings by the 22-member ad hoc county committee whose industry, health and environmental representatives unanimously approved the proposal.

They would replace the county's unworkable and outdated 24-year-old toxics guidelines and be used to inform county decisions on permits for new or expanding industrial sources of air toxics, pollutants that can cause cancer or other serious health problems.

Dr. Burke said the proposed guidelines would employ up-to-date information in assessing the risks posed by air toxics, take into consideration the cumulative impact of toxics emissions from nearby industrial sources, and allow industries to offset any new or increased emissions by reducing pollution from mobile sources like diesel trucks.

"I think it takes some novel approaches, but it's a more scientific way to protect people's health," he said. "It provides a good way to look at air toxics, and that's something that hasn't been done in 25 years."

During the public comment period on the new air toxics proposal the Health Department received more than 200 comments in favor of passage and 13 from business groups and industries, including EQT, U.S. Steel, Shenango Coke, Eastman Chemical Resins Inc. and PPG, opposing the guidelines as vague, expensive and complicated to apply and meet, and possibly illegal.

But a review by the Allegheny County Health Department found they could be applied to the county's permitting process with minimal expense to industry operations and would not have resulted in the denial of any of the 121 installation permits issued by the county from January 2009 through July 2012.

The review by Jim Thompson, air quality program director, found that only 13 of those installation permits required review under the 1988 toxics guidelines and all 13 passed.

All 13 would also pass under provisions of the new guidelines, and only two permits issued to Eastman and Shenango, would have required "additional analysis" before being approved.

"In the county's analysis, the fact that some of the bigger [air toxics] contributors would have to do some work before being issued a permit is a good sign," said Tom Hoffman, Western Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action and a member of the ad hoc task force.

The proposed guidelines are a compromise, he said, that's "not perfect but a big step forward."

"Would I like to see these guidelines stronger? Yes. But what's important is the principles the proposal contains," Mr. Hoffman said. "And that's why it's important for the board of health to pass these guidelines now."


Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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