Allegheny County Board of Health votes to update air toxics guidelines

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The Allegheny County Board of Health today approved new air toxics guidelines aimed at gradually reducing levels of hazardous air pollutants from industrial facilities, refineries, chemical manufacturers, coal-burning power plants and natural gas development and processing facilities.

Seven years after the first proposal was made to update the county's cumbersome and scientifically outdated 1988 air toxics guidelines, the board voted 7-1 with one abstention to adopt the new guidelines.

They allow the health department to use up-to-date scientific information about the health risks posed by hazardous air pollutants to assess permits for new emissions sources.

"This is an important step forward for air quality in Allegheny County," said Donald Burke, a board member and dean of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health.

Dr. Burke headed the 22-member ad hoc committee of environmental, industry and academic leaders that wrote the new guidelines.

"All new applications for permits will be subject to new scrutiny for air emissions and industry will have the flexibility to off-set those emissions," he said.

The guidelines, which take effect Feb. 7, will for the first time allow the health department's air quality program to consider the cumulative impact of toxic air emissions from nearby sources when evaluation an application for a new pollution source.

It will also the emitting industries to offset any new or increased emissions by reducing pollution from existing sources, including mobile sources like diesel trucks.

The efforts to update the guidelines began in 2005. The Board of Health halted them in 2009 when the county's then-Executive Dan Onorato pushed to table the proposed policy update.

Action on the new guidelines, produced after two years of meetings by the ad hoc committee, was postponed in July and September.

"The board acted like a Health Board today, considering stuff on the basis of how it would affect public health," Tom Hoffman, Western Pennsylvania director for Clean Water Action, said. "So kudos to the board."

Sustainable Pittsburgh also commended the health board for approving the new guidelines, calling the update long overdue.

"Our region's prosperity increases as our air quality gets better," Court Gould, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh, said. "Healthier communities attract talented people, who remain productive, active, and creative. This positions our region to have both the healthy air and the healthy economy we deserve."

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


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