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Environmental Leaders Link Health Issues to Poor Air Quality in Allegheny County

A version of this story ran on Tube City Online.

Resident Mark Dixon speaks at the Pittsburgh City Council discussion on air quality on April 2.

By Mary Shelly, Point Park News Service

The number of people dying in Allegheny County from exposure to air pollution is comparable to the numbers of the opioid epidemic, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who has studied air pollution emissions, told the Pittsburgh City Council on April 2.

“There’s approximately 250 attributable deaths each year in Allegheny County from exposure to fine particulate matter, PM2.5. If you monetize that, that corresponds to about $2.5 billion a year in environmental damages,” said Neil Donahue, Professor of Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, and Engineering and Public Policy at CMU.

“It’s a calamity of the highest order,” he said.

Mark Dixon, a film director and local resident, testified at Tuesday’s meeting between members of Pittsburgh City Council, representatives of Allegheny County’s Health Department and environmental leaders. The meeting was called to discuss the county’s air quality and prompted by the recent issues at U.S. Steel Clairton Works.

Dixon said he often hears reports from citizens about how hard it is to breathe the air.

“It is extremely frustrating that U.S. Steel is somehow allowed to keep breaking the law while citizens are asked to stay indoors,” he said.

Dixon said he frequently schedules his activities depending on the state of the air quality to limit his exposure. He said he is able to do this through apps such as Air Bubbles, SmellPGH, PurpleAir and others.

Deputy Director of Environmental Health Jim Kelly said Allegheny County is not meeting federal air quality standards on the pollutants Ozone, SO2, and PM2.5. These standards are set by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency to protect the public from harmful pollutants.

The ACHD works to see that those standards are met and then have to work to meet them again when new standards are released, Kelly said.

The ACHD has a plan to issue or renew all Title V operating permits with sources of air pollution by the end of 2020, according to Jayme Graham, the manager of Air Quality Program at the ACHD. This plan will eliminate the backlog of permits that were never issued or renewed, verifying that all the permits are up to date.

The decision to create an enforcement order came after problems with U.S. Steel Clariton Works, Kelly said. “We were noticing that their compliance rates were slipping.”

The 2018 enforcement order not only penalized U.S. Steel over $1 million, but also required the steel company to show improvements in its compliance with the requirements of its permit or ultimately take equipment off the line.

Leaders of nonprofit organizations who were present explain their work against air pollution and try to persuade authorities to do more.

Rachel Filippini, Executive Director of Group Against Smog and Pollution, said the amount of air pollution is important for those with health issues deciding to live in the area.

“Air pollution really affects just about every part of your body. From asthma, to cancers, to heart attacks and strokes, to diabetes and dementia,” Filippini said.

Ashleigh Deemer, the Western Pennsylvania director of PennEnvironment, said it is important that the City Council help inform the public, so that they can advocate for themselves.

“To do the hard work and have the political courage to make change and clean up our air, we’ll need a really informed and motivated public to speak out in support of these changes,” Deemer said.

Council members Corey O’Connor and Erika Strassburger requested this discussion on air quality to find actionable solutions for cities and municipalities to use to better air standards in the future.

Other topics discussed regarded proper removal of asbestos, the use of thermoplastic to designate crosswalks and permits.

“I think it’s great that there are so many people that are interested and we have so much data. The data really helps us set policy,” O’Connor said.

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