Allegheny County got a stark reminder of that recently, as the American Lung Association released its 2021 “State of the Air” report cards, and the county received F grades for ozone and particle pollution over a 24-hour test, and failed its annual particle pollution test.
The ozone and particle pollution levels have vastly improved in the county since the early 2000s, but just above the levels required to pass ALA’s report card.
Allegheny County Health Department officials responded to the report, acknowledging that there is still work to be done in improving the region’s air quality, but also was critical of the aspects of the report.
“We all want clean air, no matter where we live, and the Allegheny County Health Department works tirelessly to improve air quality throughout the county and for every resident. … While we have made great strides with our efforts to improve air quality, we also understand that work remains, particularly in the Mon Valley. As such, the ACHD will continue to be aggressive with enforcement, transparent with our data and innovative with our policies,” said county Deputy Director of Environmental Health Jim Kelly in a statement. Kelly added that the data used in the report is not current and is also limited since it bases the region’s air quality solely on the Liberty monitor, which has the highest readings for annual fine particulate matter.
The data taken for the 2021 report was federal air quality monitoring data from 2017-19, but this is the latest available data that is qualified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
And the Liberty air monitor is close to the region’s biggest polluter, the Clairton Coke Works, but as shown by the new PlumePGH app, air pollution from that source can easily be scattered throughout the region by weather patterns, especially during temperature inversions.
Air quality activists expressed a bit of hope since there are signs of the Pittsburgh region air quality continuing to improve, but were also distressed at the perpetual failing grades.
“While ALA’s report indicates improvements, at the end of the day we are still failing," says Rachel Filippini, director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution, in a press release. "Polluted air translates into more asthma attacks, heart attacks, and cancer for people in our region, and a deteriorated quality of life for everyone. Regulators and decision makers need to act more aggressively to improve air quality and treat it like the urgent public health issue that it is.”
Advocates have been calling for the county to create more regulations to ensure that industrial polluters are held to higher standards.
Recently, Allegheny County Health Department officials have taken steps to address air quality issues, including providing air quality alerts for the Mon Valley, which has the region’s worst air pollution levels, and issuing a notice to the Clairton Coke Works for a hydrogen sulfide exceedance violation.
Additionally, regulations that would require industrial polluters to plan for high-risk days are scheduled to be considered by the county's Board of Health meeting in May.