Board of Health postpones vote on air toxics guidelines

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Despite impassioned pleas by a half-dozen speakers urging approval of a long-delayed update of Allegheny County's air toxics guidelines, the Board of Health on Wednesday postponed a vote until its next meeting Nov. 7.

Michelle Boyle, a nurse from Highland Park, said she tries to protect her two young daughters and asked the board to do the same.

"I make my daughters wear bicycle helmets and lock up bleach and cleaning chemicals in the home," she said. "But I can't protect them from air toxics. As a parent I can't lock up pollution or teach my daughters to breathe differently."

Sharon Thompson, of the United Steelworkers Health, Safety & Environment Department, said the union "strongly supported and urged immediate adoption of the guidelines" even though it represents many workers at industries that could be affected by their passage.

But Donald Burke, a board member and chair of the 22-member task force that worked for two years on the proposal, said county Executive Rich Fitzgerald requested that the vote be delayed to allow additional consensus building.

"I understand and appreciate the desire for a broader consensus," said Dr. Burke, dean of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health. "But I'm committed to having something to vote on next time."

The board also delayed a planned vote on the measure at its July meeting. Work on a guidelines update, which would replace the county's unworkable and scientifically antiquated 1988 guidelines, has now stretched over seven years.

Mr. Fitzgerald said in a phone interview Tuesday that he supports passing guidelines in November. "What I want to do is move forward on it, and I'm committed to doing that. It's an important step," he said. "But my sense is that this should continue for one more meeting to reach a broader consensus."

The guidelines would be used to guide county decisions on permits for new or expanding industrial sources of air toxics, which can cause cancer or other serious health problems.

But the proposal was criticized by local and state business and development groups and industries that lobbied against the guidelines who claim they are vague, expensive to implement, complicated to apply and possibly illegal.

Patricia M. DeMarco, director of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University and a task force member, said she was "furious that back room politics is trumping the public process."

"We struggled to reach 100 percent consensus on these guidelines, brought in experts, looked at data and air pollution models, and tried to be fair and accurate," she said. "This is a travesty."

region - environment - health

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


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