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For the first time in history, the air quality at all eight of the Allegheny County Health Department’s monitors has met federal standards.
Officials last week announced that the county has met federal air-quality standards for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone and small particles of soot and other contaminants.
“This achievement comes after years of hard work by the health department, federal and state agencies and local industry to clean up the air in Allegheny County,” said Dr. Debra Bogen, health department director. “But we have more work to do, and the health department is committed to ensuring everyone in Allegheny County has clean air to breathe.”
The health department has eight air-quality monitors, including three in the Mon-Yough area at Liberty Borough, Clairton and North Braddock, as well as locations in Avalon, Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, South Fayette and Harrison townships and along the Parkway East.
Historically, the Liberty monitor—located across the river from U.S. Steel’s Clairton Plant—has kept the county from attaining Environmental Protection Agency standards.
Clairton Plant, which produces coke, a coal by-product, is often blamed for bad air-quality in southern Allegheny County.
“This is exciting news for our county and region,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said. “It’s extremely rewarding to see this measure of success. We are grateful for the continued support of our federal and state elected officials (but) we still have much work to do. By continuing to work together, we can ensure that we continue to improve our air and quality of life.”
But the improvement may be a function of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two weeks ago, a U.S. Steel study that analyzed traffic and ambient air-quality data from monitoring stations near its Mon Valley Works plants found that certain types of pollution had decreased 40 percent since pandemic restrictions reduced car and bus travel.
While COVID-19 stay-at-home measures caused decreases in vehicle traffic, there was not a significant decrease in industrial production over that same time period, the study concluded.
Environmental consulting firm Trinity Consultants verified U.S. Steel’s findings, which included an analysis of data collected from the Liberty monitor, along with Pennsylvania Department of Transportation traffic data taken from within a 40-mile radius of that site.
Over the period reviewed, the study said, there was no change in production at the Clairton plant, while the number of total vehicles on southwestern Pennsylvania roadways in the area examined fell by 50 percent.
The data review opportunity afforded by these unique circumstances suggest a direct, significant correlation between the amount of vehicle traffic and Liberty monitor concentrations, U.S. Steel officials said.
“These findings shed light on the impact that mobile sources, such as vehicle emissions have on our community,” said Brett Tunno, an environmental engineer at U.S. Steel. “We look forward to exploring this further and support and encourage similar efforts by other members of our community.”
Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Edgewood-based Group Against Smog and Pollution , said work to improve local air quality is far from over.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” she said. “We still have way too many days when foul odors and pollution from industrial sources makes the air unhealthy to breathe. And our most vulnerable—children, the elderly, and those with heart and lung disease—suffer the most.”
The EPA set the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for fine particulate matter in 1999. Based on preliminary data from the department’s monitors, Allegheny County is attaining both the annual and 24-hour standards for the first time since then, county officials said.
The data is being certified for submission to the EPA for approval, the county said.
The health department said it will continue its efforts to address and improve air quality with addressing existing regulations and requiring companies to further limit emission during weather-related pollution episodes.
State Rep. Austin Davis, Democrat of McKeesport called the county’s report “great news.”
“I am overjoyed by this report, but the fight is not over, and we must all continue advocating for increased air quality across the region, across the Commonwealth and across the country,” he said. “However, today, we should take solace in the fact that we can breathe a little easier.”
Clean air “is a fundamental right,” Davis said in a prepared statement. “People should not be subjected to subpar air quality simply because of where they live, and I commend the collective efforts of the Allegheny County Health Department, federal, state and local agencies, industry, and all of the advocates involved in making that a reality.”
Denise L. Ritter is a freelance writer and photographer in Port Vue. She may be reached at email@example.com
Originally published February 01, 2021.