County's air quality oversight authority challenged

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Allegheny County officials are launching a preemptive strike at a statehouse proposal that aims to strip the county health department of its power to regulate air pollution.

The measure, sponsored by state Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Murrysville, is still waiting for other legislators to join as co-sponsors and hasn't become a bill. But the gist is as clear as Mr. Evankovich's memo supporting the bill can make it: Allegheny County should leave policing of the region's polluters to the folks in the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"The taxpayers of Allegheny County pay twice for the same services," Mr. Evankovich wrote. "The [Allegheny County Health Department] makes decisions that impact the surrounding counties, yet those citizens who live out of Allegheny County do not have a say in the policies that the ACHD promotes."

He says he soon will introduce legislation moving the responsibility of developing and enforcing environmental air policy to state regulators, who already manage air quality issues statewide.

As you can imagine, the health department is not pleased about this.

"There are clearly errors of fact," said Ronald Voorhees, the acting health department director. "This would obviously have a huge impact on our functions."

Let's start with that bit about how Allegheny County residents pay twice, he said. The county's air quality program is actually funded entirely by fees, fines and federal grants, using no local tax revenue. He'd argue folks in Allegheny County get more for their money than most.

And despite Mr. Evankovich's contention the local agency keeps outside counties out of the loop, health department officials believe there would be even less participation should enforcement move back to the DEP.

The health department's air quality division currently regulates air pollution in the county, enforces federal pollution standards and issues permits to industry. In a way, it's the Environmental Protection Agency in miniature, both designing new regulations and holding public hearings to collect input.

Rachel Fillippini, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Group Against Smog and Pollution, said Mr. Evankovich's proposal would not only reduce residents' say in environmental matters, but also may cost more.

"Moving the local air quality program's functions to the PA DEP would be extremely legally complex, time-consuming and very expensive," she said. "This would defeat the stated purpose of the legislation and would be a waste of already-limited state resources."

Mr. Evankovich could not be reached for comment Wednesday. The Legislature is on its summer recess.

Dr. Voorhees said he plans to work with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to lobby legislators, throwing the county's weight against Mr. Evankovich's proposal. The board also agreed to write a letter to the lawmaker urging him to withdraw his request for co-sponsors.

"It's important we identify the downsides of pursuing this course of action," Dr. Voorhees said.

region - state - environment

Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497.


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