Region gets an 'F' for pollution

Pittsburgh's air again ranks among worst in nation

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Air quality in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area continues to rank among the worst in the nation, despite steady improvements in soot and smog levels.

Other regions throughout the nation are improving air quality at a faster pace.

In the American Lung Association's "State of the Air 2011" report released Tuesday, the Pittsburgh area ranked as the nation's third most polluted area for short-term particle pollution for the second year in a row. It ranked behind only the Bakersfield-Delano and Fresno-Madera areas of California.

The Pittsburgh area, which ranked fifth in 2010 for yearlong average of particulate pollution, improved to seventh place. But in the national ranking for ozone, Allegheny County worsened from 66th to 41st place, with Los Angeles having the worst. County ozone levels were slightly worse than Philadelphia's and second in the state to Bucks County.

As a result, the county received an "F" for both categories of particle and ozone pollution, in part because it had 93 unhealthy air-quality days for those sensitive to pollution from 2007 through 2009, with three days judged to be unhealthy for everyone.

Still, air quality in the region had fewer days of dangerous air pollution and lower long-term average levels of fine-particle pollution compared with last year's report.

Guillermo Cole, a spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department, objected once again to the Lung Association's use of soot readings from the Liberty monitor -- usually the highest in the county -- to characterize the whole region. He said Liberty was the only monitor from 2008 through 2010 that had readings above the national federal EPA standard of 15 micrograms per cubic meter.

"The America Lung Association report is a reminder that there is more work to be done in the region," he said, noting that pollution levels from outside the region also are affecting local readings. "We always acknowledge that the Liberty monitor [just west of U.S. Steel Corp.'s Clairton Coke Works] is unacceptably high, but other sites in the county are much lower and meet the particulate standards."

But Jan Jarrett, president and chief executive officer of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, said the region's "air quality is unacceptable."

"Air quality would have to improve a whole lot more than this to make a significant improvement in those [ranking] numbers," she said. "At some level the public simply has to say, 'We're mad as hell and not going to take it any longer,' and demand clean air for Pittsburgh, or it's not going to change."

Ms. Jarrett said old coal-fired power plants must be replaced with natural-gas plants, while fleets of garbage trucks, buses and municipal fleets should also convert to natural gas. Pittsburgh also needs to enforce the diesel anti-idling law, which limits how long diesel trucks can stay in place with engines running.

The report noted that 51,000 children and nearly 175,000 adults in the eight county Pittsburgh metropolitan area have asthma with 89,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, 49,000 cases of emphysema, 783,000 cases of heart disease and nearly 184,000 with diabetes. Science has linked all with pollution exposure.

The two cleanest cities are Honolulu, Hawaii, and Santa Fe-Espanola, N.M., the report said.

In response to the report, the Lung Association called on citizens to counter efforts by some members of Congress to weaken the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's ability to enforce the Clean Air Act.

"Air pollution kills," said Charles D. Connor, Lung Association president and chief executive officer. "The Clean Air Act is under attack by the polluters' lobby that wants to block implementation of regulations and weaken the EPA. But we need a strong Clean Air Act. These are perilous times for the Clean Air Act and clean air in America."


Correction/Clarification: (Published April 28, 2011) In an article Wednesday about the American Lung Association's list of the nation's most polluted regions, the totals listed of people with asthma, bronchitis, heart disease, emphysema and diabetes were for the entire Pittsburgh metropolitan area that comprises eight counties, including Allegheny County. The area indicated in the story was incorrect.

David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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