Pittsburgh region still gets poor marks for air pollution

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The American Lung Association’s annual air quality report shows a mixed bag, with the Pittsburgh region’s air still bad but noticeably improving, although unhealthy, ground-level ozone increased.

The “State of the Air 2014” document, released today shows that levels of fine particle pollution, or soot, in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area and statewide were at their lowest levels since the national clean air advocacy organization began compiling air quality data 15 years ago.

Air quality improved due to the switch of some coal-burning power plants to natural gas and newer, cleaner-burning diesel engines comprising a larger percentage of the on-road vehicle fleet, said the report, which is based on the latest U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data from 2010 through 2012.

“We do recognize that some of the numbers in this report are the best ever recorded since 2000. There is no question that progress is being made,” said Kevin Stewart, the Lung Association’s director of environmental health. “We can’t say that about ozone but we can for particle pollution.”

Despite the overall air quality improvement, the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton region’s ranking for fine particle pollution levels fell from eighth worst in last year’s report to sixth worse this year, and it again failed to meet national air quality standards for fine particle pollution, the report said.

The region’s ranking for ozone — which can pose serious health impacts, including worsened asthma and other respiratory disease, heart problems and premature death — also worsened during the 2010-12 period, moving from 24th in the nation last year to 21st worst this year.

The region’s rankings decline for fine particles occurred because of a change in the size of some metropolitan areas included in the rankings, including the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area, and also because the air quality in some metropolitan areas showed greater improvements, according to the report.

Ozone numbers were higher for most regions of the country because the summer of 2012 was warmer and sunnier. Ozone is formed by a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight.

In addition to the comparative ranking, metropolitan areas and counties were given a letter grade from A to F, with F being lowest. Allegheny County received an F and none of the counties in the Pittsburgh region received a grade above D.

“Allegheny County is clearly in the F range and not close to passing,” Mr. Stewart said. “But remember we use the latest nationally available statistics and the 2013 data is not included in this report and therefore recent emissions reductions are not included.”

Jayme Graham, the acting head of the Allegheny County Health Department’s Air Quality Program, said the county’s air measurements show air quality improving at about the same rate as other parts of the state and country.

“Air quality continues to improve in Allegheny County, but certainly we have a way to go,” Ms. Graham said. “Our goal is to be within the National Air Quality Standards, and we’re coming close. But we won’t be satisfied until the air is clean.”

Randy Francisco, Pittsburgh organizing representative for the Sierra Club, said the state’s 31 coal-fired power plants continue to be the single-largest source of smog-causing pollution, and a newly proposed Pennsylvania rule fails to set meaningful limits on those emissions, which contribute to the region’s failing grades for smog.

“We all deserve healthy air, but according to this report we have a long way to go. Governor Corbett can show he cares about the health of our families by ensuring coal plants limit their smog-causing pollution using the emissions-cutting technology they already have,” Mr. Francisco said.

A review by the Sierra Club and the Clean Air Council earlier this month found that the draft power plant emissions rule, now out for public comment, is up to four times weaker than similar rules in the surrounding states of Delaware, New York and Maryland.

According to the Sierra Club, more than a quarter million people in the Pittsburgh region suffer from asthma, including more than 50,000 children.

Coincidentally, county Health Department officials will meet tonight with residents of municipalities downwind from the Shenango Coke works on Neville Island to explain how a recent enforcement action by the county will reduce the high levels of pollution hitting the communities of Avalon, Ben Avon and Bellevue.

The meeting is scheduled for 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Avalon Borough Building, 640 California Ave.

Residents of the municipalities and a number of environmental groups, including Clean Water Action, Women for a Healthy Environment, Clean Air Council, Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, and the Group Against Smog and Pollution, have expressed concerns that the settlement, which was preceded by five previous consent orders from 1980 to 2012, won’t be enforced.

“Our County Health Department needs to rigorously enforce the clean air agreement with Shenango and be transparent about the process, keeping the public informed about steps to limit the dangerous pollution that puts our health at risk,” Valessa Souter-Kline, PennFuture Western Pennsylvania outreach coordinator, said in a joint news release.

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

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