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Public Asks County Council For
Action on Air, Water Quality

Council, county executive sworn in at Jan. 2 meeting

By Ann Belser
The Tube City Almanac
January 07, 2020
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News, Politics & Elections

County Councilman John Palmiere, Democrat from Baldwin Twp., is sworn in by Allegheny County Common  Pleas Judge Dan Regan. Palmiere represents District 6, which also includes Clairton, Elizabeth Borough, Jefferson Hills and Pleasant Hills. Looking on is Common Pleas Judge Kathryn Hens-Greco. (Photo by Ann Belser/Print, special to Tube City Almanac)

If its first meeting was any indication, Allegheny County Council could be in for a contentious new year.

On Jan. 2, the night that all of the new and re-elected members of council were sworn in and Pat Catena of Carnegie was elected as the new council president, a dozen residents availed themselves of the public comment period to talk about the poor quality of the air and water in Allegheny County.

“Of all the issues that come before you, none is more serious than the toxic air that we breathe everyday,” John Detwiler of Squirrel Hill said. “Our county’s air is among the worst in the nation, it affects the health and the very lives of our friends and our neighbors, so all of us should care about our air.”

He called on the new council to reshape the Board of Health through its confirmation process to make the board more responsive to air quality issues.

In a statement released earlier in the day, the health department’s interim director Ronald A. Sugar addressed the days from Dec. 21 to 26 when the air quality throughout the Mon Valley was poor because a temperature inversion trapped pollutants close to the ground.

Last year, also around Christmas, the county experienced poor air quality because of a fire in the pollution control room U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works.

In July, the county reached a settlement in which the company agreed to pay $2.7 million in fines for violating air quality standards.

In his statement, Sugar said the health department “recognizes that the increasing frequency of these temperature inversions is associated with climate change. We also recognize that industry isn’t the only contributor to poor air quality as things like vehicle exhaust have a significant impact upon pollution.

“While we will continue to advocate for residents to do what they can to reduce emissions, we must also explore new regulations that would impose corrective action requirements on industry during short-term pollution events,” he said.

Mel Packer of Point Breeze said the county has not taken on the real pollution issues caused by industry in the area.

“Like a horse with blinders on this council has all to often been a handmaiden for the political aspirations of (county Executive) Rich Fitzgerald, who himself is a hired handmaiden for industries that are not only bringing monumental disasters, but which have blackmailed state and local officials into supporting massive taxpayer subsidies.

“If we didn’t know our county executive was registered as a Democrat, we would have a hard time confusing his policies with our science-denying President,” Packer said. “Yes, those are jobs, but it has also brought to us and our county the worst air in the nation and one of the highest pediatric asthma rates.”

Fitzgerald’s spokesperson Amie Downs declined to respond.

Also sworn in at the Jan. 2 meeting were newly elected at-large county Councilwoman Bethany Hallam and District 8 Councilman Paul Zavarella, who represents 17 municipalities, including East McKeesport and Wilmerding.

Zavarella was first appointed in June 2019 to fill the unexpired term of the late Charles Martoni, while Hallam defeated former county Councilman John DeFazio, who had served on council since its creation in 2000.

County council meets twice per month at 5 p.m. Tuesdays in the Gold Room, fourth floor, Allegheny County Courthouse, downtown Pittsburgh. The next meeting is Jan. 21. Meetings are open to the public.

Ann Belser is editor and publisher of Print, a weekly newspaper based in Pittsburgh's East End. She may be reached at annb@eastendprint.com.

Originally published January 07, 2020.

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