Group pushes Allegheny County to act quickly on bad air

To improve what it terms Allegheny County's unhealthy and deadly air quality, Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future has called for major changes in how the Allegheny County Health Department regulates and enforces its pollution rules.

If those changes -- many recommended in a December 2009 report by a county Environmental Air Quality Task Force -- aren't made by March 1, Heather Sage, PennFuture vice president, said Bruce Dixon, the county's longtime health director, should resign.

"This is a public health emergency," Ms. Sage said at a news conference in the Allegheny County Courthouse Tuesday. "And our government is still not acting. We demand that all involved -- from county Executive [Dan] Onorato to County Council to the county Board of Health and especially county health Director Dr. Bruce Dixon -- take the actions necessary to protect the health of our families."

In calling for quick county action to improve air pollution regulation, inspections and enforcement, Ms. Sage cited last month's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "Mapping Mortality" report that found that from 2000 through 2008, 14,636 more people in 14 southwestern Pennsylvania's died from lung and heart diseases linked to air pollution than would be expected when compared to national mortality rates for those diseases.

The Post-Gazette's analysis of state Health Department mortality records found the mortality from heart disease was 14 percent above the national average, lung disease deaths were 7 percent higher and lung cancer was 10 percent higher. The total risk for dying from all three disease categories was 12 percent higher than the national average for county residents.

Speaking at the news conference, Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment, said the Post-Gazette findings of higher mortality in the region indicated a need for better regulation and enforcement of air pollution.

"The Health Department is responsible for the health of 1.2 million county residents and it needs to ensure that there are air quality improvements," she said. "It must step up and do the job it needs to do."

Ms. Sage said the Air Quality Task Force, appointed by Mr. Onorato, recommended adoption by June 2010 of timely permitting for industrial air pollution sources, a formal and transparent appeals process and reorganization of the Health Department's Air Quality Division with more autonomy.

But Ms. Sage said she'd seen no action on the recommendations and little improvement in the Health Department's performance. She criticized Dr. Dixon for statements he'd made indicating he balances air pollution regulation with economic considerations.

Dr. Dixon didn't return calls to his office and home. Onorato spokeswoman Megan Dardanell disputed Ms. Sage's characterization of the task force report as "sitting on a shelf."

Ms. Dardanell said the report's recommendations were accepted by the county executive in December 2009 and were in various stages of implementation. She noted that the recommendation to formalize the permit appeal process by using the state Environmental Hearing Board would require action by the state Legislature.

Ms. Dardanell said county Manager Jim Flynn has asked the Board of Health to provide updates on those recommendations at its meeting today.

region - environment

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983. First Published January 12, 2011 5:00 AM


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