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County to Issue Mon Valley Air Quality Alerts

By Staff Reports
The Tube City Almanac
April 09, 2021
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

County health officials will begin issuing air-quality alerts targeted to the Mon Valley, beginning on Monday.

A spokeswoman for the Allegheny County Health Department said the alerts will tell residents when weather forecasts have the potential for poor air quality.

The alerts will be sent out using email, text messages and phone calls. To receive the alerts, visit alleghenycounty.us/alerts and sign up for “Mon Valley Air Pollution Episode” notifications.

The move comes in the wake of several recent cases when air quality measured at the Liberty Borough monitor dropped below federal standards.

Targeted Mon Valley air quality alerts are included in new regulations that are currently being considered, and which are expected to be put to a vote by the county Board of Health later this year.

However, at the urging of Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, ACHD is going to begin issuing the alerts now for residents of the Mon Valley, said Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the health department.

“While we are moving closer to having regulations in place that will require industries to take responsible action during poor air quality days, there have been too many incidents in the past few months to wait any longer,” Bogen said.

“The department will follow the spirit of the regulations, providing public notice of the potential for poor air quality, or the exceedance of the PM 2.5 threshold at the Liberty monitor,” she said. “We are hopeful that the sources in the Mon Valley will join us in this proactive step, acting responsibly to benefit the community in which they are located.”

On Wednesday, county officials said the Liberty monitor had began measuring increased levels of small particles of pollution known as PM 2.5, beginning Tuesday night. The levels exceeded federal limits for the 24-hour period.

It is suspected — but not proven — that the elevated pollution levels were caused by U.S. Steel’s Clairton Plant, which is directly across the river from the Liberty Borough monitor. The plant produces coke, a blast-furnace fuel, by superheating coal to remove impurities.

The health department said that it was in “significant communication with U.S. Steel” but also was looking at other possible causes for the elevated readings on Tuesday.

County officials called the readings “unusual and unexpected” because the air dispersion forecast was for fair air quality.

According to Group Against Smog & Pollution, a watchdog organization based in Regent Square, measurements of both hydrogen sulfide and PM 2.5 at the Liberty monitor exceeded national health standards on Wednesday.

PM 2.5 levels averaged 38.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air, a GASP spokesperson said. The federal standard is 35.

Hydrogen sulfide has a “rotten egg” odor and irritates the eyes and lungs. It can cause headaches and difficulty breathing. Exposure to PM 2.5 has been linked to heart or lung diseases, acute and chronic bronchitis, asthma attacks and difficulty breathing.

The health department contacted U.S. Steel and was told that the three oldest coke batteries at the Clairton Plant had been taken off-line sometime in the previous 12 hours before levels at the Liberty monitor exceeded standards, the county spokeswoman said. The department is requesting additional information.

Pollution readings returned to moderate, normal levels on Thursday, the county said.

The regulations currently being developed by the Health Department would monitor weather forecasts provided by the state Department of Environmental Protection, and issue air quality alerts when necessary.

“GASP and fellow environmental groups have long called on the health department to do more robust communication around air quality,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said. “We thank ACHD for its efforts to better inform the community about this important public health issue."

The Mon Valley Air Pollution Episode Regulations are scheduled to be considered by the county’s air advisory committee at its April meeting, and be voted on by the full county Board of Health later this year.

The regulations would apply for sources located in, or contributing to air quality in, Braddock, Braddock Hills, Chalfant, Clairton, Dravosburg, Duquesne, East McKeesport, East Pittsburgh, Elizabeth Borough, Elizabeth Twp., Forest Hills, Forward Twp., Glassport, Jefferson Hills, Liberty, Lincoln, McKeesport, Munhall, North Braddock, North Versailles Twp., Port Vue, Rankin, Swissvale, Turtle Creek, Versailles, Wall, West Elizabeth, West Mifflin, White Oak, Wilkins Twp., Wilmerding and Whitaker.

On April 1, the county announced that U.S. Steel was being issued a notice of violation for allegedly exceeding hydrogen sulfide emission levels on 25 separate occasions in 2020 and 2021.

The violations include possible penalties of $25,000 per day. U.S. Steel has 14 days to schedule a meeting with the health department to discuss the alleged violations before enforcement action may proceed.

Originally published April 09, 2021.

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