Allegheny County updates rules on air toxics

New protocol will impact permits

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The Allegheny County Board of Health has finally 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Seven years after the first proposal was made to update the county's cumbersome and scientifically outdated 1988 air toxics guidelines, the board Wednesday voted 7-1, with one abstention, to adopt the new guidelines that will allow the health department to use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.

The new 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 evaluating an application for a new pollution source. It will also allow the emitting industries to offset any new or increased emissions by reducing pollution from existing sources, including mobile sources like diesel trucks.

"This is an important step forward for air quality in Allegheny County. All new applications for permits will be subject to new scrutiny for air emissions, and industry will have the flexibility to offset those emissions," said Donald Burke, a board member and dean of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, who headed the 22-member ad hoc committee of environmental, industry and academic leaders that wrote the new guidelines.

Dr. Burke said the new guidelines not only set emissions standards for new sources but will help to reduce existing emissions by encouraging industrial facilities to make higher reductions in toxics emissions from old facilities.

Emissions of "air toxics" are defined as pollutants that can cause cancer and other serious health problems, including birth defects and respiratory and neurological problems. The county Health Department receives 20 to 50 installation permit applications a year from industries that emit air toxics and thus, would be subject to review and analysis under the new guidelines.

The efforts to update the guidelines began in 2005 but were halted in 2009 when the Board of Health, at the direction of the county's then-Executive Dan Onorato, tabled the proposed policy update. Action on the new guidelines, produced after two years of meetings by the ad hoc committee, was postponed in July, to allow for public comments, and again in September, to allow for additional review by industries that objected to the new guidelines and sought to delay or stop its passage.

As a result of that industry review, the guidelines brought to the board Wednesday were weakened. The revised guidelines moved the "public exposure boundary" -- the spot where the emissions health risk would be measured and assessed, from the emitting industry's property line to the nearest habitable structure. Such a change could allow increased toxics emissions.

But Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution, and Myron Arnowitt, state director for Clean Water Action, told the board that the new language could put the public's health at risk. Michael Bett, a Ben Avon councilman, said it was troubling that the change was made "behind closed doors" without any public input.

Ken Zapinski, a senior vice president with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, read a letter to the board from the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce that said the new air toxics policy was unnecessary to protect air quality and public health, but added that the revised version was "much improved."

Board member Edith Shapira called the environmental groups' complaints "persuasive," and proposed an amendment that returned the "fence-line standard" to the guidelines that was approved by the board.

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

Sustainable Pittsburgh also commended the board, calling the new guidelines long overdue.

"Our region's prosperity increases as our air quality gets better," said Court Gould, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh. "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."

region - environment

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


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