County health board votes on change to pollution control plan

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The Allegheny County Board of Health today approved an amendment to the state's airborne particle control plan for the Liberty-Clairton area that will bring the region into attainment of federal standards by the end of 2014.

The industrialized Mon Valley region is not in attainment of the fine particle emissions standards, but a combination of federal emissions controls, local regulations and the switch by utilities from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas for electric power generation will help it meet not only the 2006 standards but new, tighter 2012 emission limits, said Jim Thompson, county air quality program director.

The amendment to the State Implementation Plan or "SIP," a federally required plan to reduce health harmful air pollution, will be submitted to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which will send it to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has final review and approval authority.

"We've seen a big shift in recent years and actual emissions are way below what our plan modeled for sulfur dioxide emissions, which are most important for us," Mr. Thompson said. "The coal-burning power plant conversion to natural gas, or the closure of those coal-burning plants, has changed emissions permanently. It's cheaper to switch fuels than to install emissions controls."

He said many power plants in Ohio and West Virginia and Illinois, up-wind from Allegheny County, have either switched fuel or installed controls to meet the federal 2011 Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which are aimed at controlling toxic gases but have the side benefit of also reducing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, both precursors of almost invisible airborne particulates.

Those particles can be breathed deeply into human lungs and exacerbate respiratory problems, like asthma, or cause heart attacks and premature death.

Mr. Thompson said two new "quench towers" at U.S. Steel Corp.'s Clairton Coke Works, which will capture pollution that now escapes during the cooling or quenching of coke, will also reduce particulate emissions by 1,000 tons a year.

He said all of those changes combined have reduced fine airborne particle levels in the Liberty-Clairton area by 35 percent since 2006, and could enable the area to meet the tighter federal emissions standards passed in December 2012.

"So for the first time in a long time we could actually be ahead of the federal standards," Mr. Thompson said. The Health Board today also approved a new regulation aimed at requiring U.S. Steel and Shenango Co., which operates a coke making plant on Neville Island in the Ohio River, to flare coke oven gases at their 11 coke batteries that are now sometimes emitted into the air. Previously existing regulations required only that the companies have a plan to control the coke oven gas emissions.

But some critics at the Health Board meeting, noting that a recent study by the American Lung Association identified the Pittsburgh metropolitan area as having the eighth-worst particle air pollution in the nation, said the county's plan doesn't go far enough.

Judith Moore, pastor of the First AME Church in Clairton, pleaded with the Health Board to do more to control spikes in air pollution that are hurting the health of her congregation.

"Maybe you can get U.S. Steel to reduce its emissions on days that are already really bad air quality," Ms. Moore said. "Maybe you should consider additional standards and limitations just for the city of Clairton."

Tom Hoffman, Western Pennsylvania director for Clean Water Action, an environmental organization, also recommended that the Health Department work with U.S. Steel to reduce coke making emissions on the dozen or so days a year when pollution levels are highest in the Mon Valley communities.

Mr. Thompson said that existing settlement agreements the county has with U.S. Steel require the company to limit emissions of courser particles -- those bigger than 10 micrograms or "PM-10" -- when pollution levels are high, by slowing down the coke making process, thus reducing the "pushes" of coke out of ovens.

Similar restrictions for controlling emissions of smaller particle emissions -- those smaller than 2.5 micrograms or "PM-2.5" -- would be a good idea, Mr. Thompson said.

"But they'd be tough to implement if the area reaches attanment of the federal standards," he said. "If attainment happens we don't have the authority to force such measures. If the area doesn't reach attainment we can do something like that."

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


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