A week after the American Lung Association declared that the Pittsburgh area has the seventh-worst air quality in the nation, the Allegheny County Board of Health approved an air quality improvement plan mandated by the federal government for the Liberty-Clairton area.
The vote of approval on Wednesday gave the go-ahead to the plan without including several local groups' suggestions for stricter pollution guidelines.
After processing 56 comments on the State Implementation Plan to decrease the amount of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) pollution in the area, the Allegheny County Health Department found only two to be substantive, both being minor bureaucratic revisions from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The board declined to act on the more tangible demands for stronger particulate matter pollution controls on the U.S. Steel coke works facility in Clairton made by environmentalists and community groups.
The Rev. Judith Moore of First AME Church in Clairton told the board that she wants additional controls to require the coke works facility to reduce PM 2.5 emissions on designated poor air quality days.
"Since I'm there five to six days a week, I can see the great difference coming in and out," Moore said. "It affects not only personally me, but it affects a lot of my members. One of them just recently was on oxygen, and we lost her a couple weeks ago."
Her comments were echoed by Tom Hoffman, Western Pennsylvania Director for Clean Water Action.
"One of our recommendations is that the coke works (should) work with the Health Department to develop a procedure to reduce their emissions on those bad air quality days," Hoffman said.
However, ACHD director of air quality Jim Thompson said the Health Department does not have the authority to require U.S. Steel to do that, although the company does perform a similar process for larger particulate matter pollution (PM 10).
Thompson credited the improving air quality in the Liberty-Clairton area largely to a reduction of incoming pollution from upwind coal-fired power plants.
He said new EPA rules require those plants to emit less of the pollution that leads to particulate matter. Thompson also noted that the rise of natural gas plants is leading to a decline of the old coal-fired models.
"With hydraulic fracturing and the natural gas revolution over the past several years, the economics of coal versus natural gas have changed," Thompson said. "It's cheaper to fuel-switch than it is to put on (pollution) controls."
The first of the minor changes to the State Implementation Plan approved by the Board of Health on Wednesday centered on a bit of administrative minutia under EPA standards, requiring only a nominal change to the section of code under which the plan would be regulated.
The second revision to the Liberty-Clairton SIP came from a suggestion by the EPA to measure the air quality improvement progress under the 2005 Clean Air Interstate Rule, because the current Cross-State Air Pollution Rule was recently struck down by a Washington, D.C. circuit court decision in August. The EPA is attempting to appeal that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.