For the second time this year, a clean-air measure appears likely to spur a turf battle between Allegheny County Council and the Health Department. Councilor Rich Fitzgerald, a Squirrel Hill Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would bar any buses from idling their engines for more than two minutes, except in very cold or hot weather. The bill is a response to complaints about buses "just sitting and sitting and sitting and spewing fumes" in neighborhoods and near attractions like the stadiums, Fitzgerald told council's Health and Human Services Committee on July 8.
A Port Authority representative told the committee that the regulations wouldn't be a problem for them, as long as there were exceptions for maintenance and for some 100 buses that have no garage, and must be left idling on cold nights. Schools and tour bus operators didn't weigh in. Health Department Director Bruce Dixon, meanwhile, was noncommittal. The appointed Board of Health, which governs his department, "is interested in doing something," he told the committee, but hasn't started work on a proposal. The question, he said, is "where health authority starts. Is it with the Board of Health or with the County Council?"
That's the same question that has stalled a "bad-actor" proposal, which would bar companies that violate air-pollution regulations from getting permits to expand and pollute more. The elected council passed the proposal last year, but the appointed Board of Health has repeatedly declined to implement it. Environmentalists worry that a ban on bus idling would meet the same fate. "As much as we have incredible respect for the people who work for the Health Department, there doesn't seem to be a political will there" to take new measures to control pollution, said Jeanne Clark, director of communications for PennFuture, to the committee. "The Board of Health talks about things, but doesn't seem to enact much."
"This council is going to pass a bill," predicted Fitzgerald. "If [the Health Department and Board of Health] want to fight us, we'll deal with that." After the meeting, Dixon and Fitzgerald agreed that council and the Board of Health will probably end up deciding their differences in court. That might be the only way to clear the air.