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New legislation proposed by a state official from McKeesport would impose larger fines on industrial facilities that violate air pollution standards.
State Rep. Austin Davis, who introduced the bill, called it a response both to a Dec. 24 incident at U.S. Steel's Clairton Plant, as well as to a massive fire in June at an oil refinery in Philadelphia.
“These were two incidents that were not only unfortunate but detrimental to the environment and the residents residing in the general vicinity of both sites,” Davis said. “Laws and regulations currently exist to make sure we have clean air and to also monitor industrial sites so that the public is protected from excessive emissions.”
The bill was referred Friday to the state Legislature's Environmental Resources & Energy Committee, where it will likely face a tough road to a vote by the full General Assembly, which is controlled by Republicans.
The committee is chaired by state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a prominent conservative from Butler County and an outspoken opponent of government regulation.
Nevertheless, Davis’s proposed legislation has already attracted 14 co-sponsors, including state Reps. Summer Lee of Braddock, Adam Ravenstahl of Pittsburgh and Dan Miller of Mt. Lebanon, as well as representatives from Bucks, Delaware, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northumberland and Philadelphia counties.
The proposed legislation would nearly double the state's fines for air quality violations, from $20,000 to $37,500.
Davis said the goal is for the larger fines to serve as a stronger deterrent and encourage investment in additional pollution control measures.
In addition, all major industrial facilities would be required to develop and maintain a notification plan that would alert residents of surrounding communities in the event of an air pollution incident.
Residents of Clairton and nearby municipalities have sharply criticized U.S. Steel and Allegheny County officials for waiting three weeks before notifying the public about the Christmas Eve fire at Clairton Plant that damaged air pollution control equipment.
Specifically, the law --- if enacted --- also would require notification to community officials within 12 hours of a breakdown or accident, unless the risk was eliminated before notice was required, Davis' office said.
The legislation would require facilities to identify the quickest ways to notify municipalities of possible pollution risks; advise communities on how to reduce their exposure to harm; and to update their communication plans on a yearly basis.
The plans would be overseen either by the state Department of Environmental Protection or local air pollution control agencies, such as the Allegheny County Health Department, when applicable.
The state legislature doesn't return to session until Sept. 17, but Davis said he was moved to act as quickly as possible in part because of a June 21 explosion and fire at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery.
As in Clairton, Philadelphia officials and residents criticized the slow release of information from the refinery's owners.
“Exceedance thresholds are happening daily, and it’s the public that suffers,” Davis said. “The time to act is now, which is why I’ve introduced legislation that will increase fines and put some teeth into preventing air pollution in the first place. It’s my hope that my colleagues will consider this legislation in the House chamber when we return to session.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said he was “grateful” to Davis for introducing the bill, and encouraged the legislature to pass it.
“This legislation will give our Health Department additional tools to ensure quick compliance from companies,” Fitzgerald said in a prepared statement released by Davis’s office. “More importantly, it provides a requirement that companies take responsibility for notifying those who live and work near their facilities so that they are informed about any incident that may impact them or their health.”
Jason Togyer is the editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published August 18, 2019.