Retreat on air: Closed-door talks weaken new county guidelines

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Allegheny County's Board of Health last week amended new guidelines for controlling toxic air emissions that it just enacted in November, diluting them after closed-door meetings with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

The last-minute alterations and how they came about are disappointing.

The new toxic air guidelines replaced a scientifically outdated 1988 version that was all-but-unusable. The update was two years in the making, a collaboration by industry representatives, environmentalists and government officials, and the work was subject to public inspection and open hearings.

Despite all of that preparation, the same board that voted 7-1 with one abstention in November to approve the guidelines just two months later, on Jan. 9, made a significant change on a 7-0 vote with two abstentions. The change moved what is called the "public exposure boundary," which is where the public health risk is measured. In the November version, the boundary was set at the property line of an industry that emits toxins into the air; in last week's version, the spot was moved to the nearest habitable structure.

Critics say that will allow more hazardous pollutants to make their way to rivers, homes, parks and other public and private spaces.

Almost as troubling as the outcome is the fact that Mr. Fitzgerald and the board, despite a long, public process, chose to work out 11th-hour changes away from scrutiny.

Even in their weakened state, the guidelines represent a significant step forward in how the health department will evaluate applications for new permits from refineries, chemical manufacturers, power plants and other industrial facilities.

It's just unfortunate that the county's big step forward had to be accompanied by any steps backward.

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