Pittsburgh region loses title of worst air in U.S.
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There will not be a three-peat.
After holding the title of worst air in the nation for two years, the Pittsburgh metropolitan area has fallen to third place for daily soot pollution, behind Bakersfield and Fresno, Calif., according to the American Lung Association's "State of the Air 2010" report.
The Pittsburgh area also dropped from second to fifth place for year-round soot pollution, behind Phoenix, Ariz., and Bakersfield, Los Angeles and Visalia, all in California.
But despite measurable improvements in air quality noted in the Lung Association's 11th annual report released this morning, the Pittsburgh region still received failing grades for both short-term and annual fine particle soot pollution and ozone smog.
Short-term pollution measures fine particulates in the air over a 24-hour period in micrograms per cubic meter. The long-term rankings use annual averages calculated and reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
"People in Allegheny County breathe air that is too often dangerous, a public health issue that impacts even healthy, vibrant individuals as well as those most at risk -- children, the elderly and people with chronic health conditions like diabetes, heart and lung disease," said Deborah Brown, acting chief executive officer at the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic.
Guillermo Cole, a spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department, said air quality in the region is improving, but objected again to the Lung Association's use of soot readings from the Liberty monitor -- usually the highest in the county -- to characterize the whole region.
Mr. Cole said the annual particulate level at the Liberty monitor was 17 micrograms per cubic meter in 2008, an improvement from the 18.9 micrograms per cubic meter reading for 2007 and the 19.1 reading in 2006, but still higher than the annual federal standard of 15 micrograms per cubic meter.
He said the county was below that soot standard at all other monitoring sites in 2008 and 2009, and the 2009 annual reading for the Liberty monitor was 15, due in large part to significant reductions in emissions by U.S. Steel Corp.'s Clairton Coke Works, which has shut down three batteries and finished a major rehabilitation and maintenance project on another.
In 2008, according to the county's Emissions Inventory report, the Clairton Coke Works emitted a total of 1,893 tons of particulates, more than 45 percent of the total particulate emissions from all sources in Allegheny County. Idling the three cokemaking batteries and upgrading another reduced emissions by 421 tons in 2009.
Kevin Stewart, an environmental scientist for the regional American Lung Association, said the annual report uses the worst monitor readings in all its rankings because people within a metropolitan area move into and out of those areas to work, shop, visit and travel.
"We use those monitors because we recognize the right of everyone to breathe clean air," Mr. Stewart said. "We want the whole metropolitan area to meet the highest standards."
He said numerous scientific studies show spikes in short-term particulate levels and exposures to high day-to-day levels exposures can damage the health of people with heart and lung disease, children and older adults, and even cause premature death.
Philadelphia ranks 12th nationwide for short-term particle pollution and Harrisburg ranks 22nd.
Pennsylvania counties ranking in the top 25 for short-term particle pollution are Allegheny (third), Philadelphia (14th) and Washington and Dauphin (tied for 25th), according to the report, which is based on air monitoring data collected by federal and state agencies from 2006 through 2008, the most recent three-year period for which data is available. Beaver County ranked 24th nationally for year-round particle pollution.
Cities with the cleanest air are Fargo, N.D., and Lincoln, Neb., which had no bad air days for ozone or airborne particles in the three years studied. Cheyenne, Wyo.; Santa Fe, N.M; Honolulu; Anchorage, Alaska; and Great Falls, Mont., had the most soot-free air year-round.
According to the report, reductions in emissions from coal-fired power plants and the start of truck and bus fleet changeovers to cleaner diesel engines and fuels have helped cut particle and ozone pollution significantly, especially in eastern and midwestern cities. But despite those improvements, more than half of the nation's residents still live in areas where pollution levels often climb to unhealthy levels.
Joe Osborne, legal director for the Group Against Smog and Pollution, said the improvement in the ranking is nice but cautioned against celebrating prematurely.
"Let's make sure this is a sustainable trend rather than a short-term variation," Mr. Osborne said. "We're improving but so is almost every other area. We're going in the right direction but are we going as fast as other places?"
The answer is no, he said, citing the county health department's approval last month of a federally mandated air pollution control plan for the Liberty-Clairton area that, according to the department's own calculations, fails to reduce airborne particle pollution below federal health standards for part of that area.
"All the other parts of the nation have plans to reduce pollution but the one prepared for the Liberty-Clairton area will not do enough to meet ambient air standards," Mr. Osborne said. "If it's not strengthened we could be number one again ... bringing all the bad press that goes along with that."
First Published April 28, 2010 12:00 am