Allegheny County health panel OKs weaker air rules

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Two months after the Allegheny County Board of Health approved new, long-delayed guidelines for controlling toxic air emissions, it voted Wednesday to weaken them at the direction of county Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

Despite the testimony of Michael Bett, a councilman in Ben Avon who said the proposed change to the county's new but as-yet-to-be-implemented Air Toxics Guidelines creates a "foolish and loose standard," the health board approved the amendment on a 7-0 vote with two abstentions.

The guidelines become effective Feb. 7.

Although the amended guidelines are weaker than those approved in November, county officials and several board members maintained they remain a big improvement over the scientifically outdated and all-but-unusable 1988 guidelines.

The change moves back the document's "public exposure boundary" -- the spot where the public health risk is measured -- from the emitting industry's property line to the nearest habitable structure.

Mr. Bett, whose community is located across the Ohio River from highly industrialized Neville Island, said the amendment could allow more emissions of air toxics, which are hazardous pollutants that can cause cancer. Theoretically, more of the public could be at risk because industries that border rivers, public parks or public or privately-owned forest land or recreational fields could emit more air toxics without exceeding pollution-control thresholds. That is because their emissions would have more area to dissipate before they're measured.

"I ask you not to adopt invented standards that are significantly weaker and fail to fulfill [the health department's] mission to adequately protect the public health," Mr. Bett said after noting that the county committee set up to write the guidelines surveyed community air toxics standards in Ohio and New Jersey and "could find no other examples of air toxic guidelines or policies that use such an ... unfriendly standard for public health."

He also questioned the process, in which industry met in private with Mr. Fitzgerald to lobby for the amendment to guidelines that were written by the broad-based committee after months of meetings and public input.

In November, the board voted, 7-1, with one abstention, to approve air toxics guidelines containing the closer property line measurement instead of the "habitable structure" measuring point pushed by industry and the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.

But that was before many of the health board members met with Mr. Fitzgerald last week.

Despite the sea change in the board's vote, there was scant comment and no debate among board members at the meeting. Board member Joan Cleary made a motion to amend the guidelines. The amendment was seconded by Anthony Ferraro. Voting in favor were those two, Donald Burke, Lee Harrison, William Youngblood, Kotayya Kondaveeti and Edith Shapira, who led the board in rejecting the looser, industry-backed measuring point in November. Board members Joylette Portlock and Ellen Stewart abstained.

"The people are well-served when the board and the county executive are on the same page," Dr. Shapira said after the meeting." She directed questions about why the change was made to Mr. Fitzgerald.

In a phone interview after the health board meeting, Mr. Fitzgerald said he had met with members in recent weeks and suggested they amend the guidelines they passed in November.

"I'm thankful and appreciative that the leadership of the board decided to be flexible," said Mr. Fitzgerald, who noted that his administration supported the first update of the county's air toxics guidelines since 1988. "This is a compromise. No one is getting everything they wanted. We're pleased to have new guidelines and we can continue to look at them and make changes as necessary."

Dr. Burke, who chaired the 22-member county committee of environmental, industry and academic leaders that wrote the guidelines, said the decision to support the amendment came after he and several other board members met with Mr. Fitzgerald. Dr. Burke characterized it as "part of the political process."

Ken Zapinski, a senior vice president with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, carried the banner for the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce at the board meeting, delivering a brief statement that said air toxics should be measured where people live, not along an industry's property or fence line.

The amendment approved by the board re-establishes the measurement point at "the nearest regularly occupied or likely to be regularly occupied (at least six hours per day for a minimum of 30 days per calendar year) structure beyond the applicant's property line."

Mr. Bett said such a provision is not only "bad science" but raised lots of enforcement and legal questions.

"Obviously," he said, "there is a great deal of certainty with property line provisions that is completely missing from the public exposure boundary idea."

The Health Department receives 20 to 50 installation permit applications annually from industries that emit air toxics and would be subject to review and analysis under the new guidelines.

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Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983.


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