The Allegheny County Health Department in a press release Thursday announced plans to combat health-threatening, weather-related pollution events.
The announcement comes after GASP, residents, and fellow environmental groups last week demanded action from the department following a weather inversion and days of associated poor air quality that prompted state officials to issue Air Quality Action Days and ACHD to send warnings about possible pollution-related health impacts.
Department officials said they know from research that inversions are expected to get worse with climate change.
“We’re seeing that first-hand here. From 2008-2018, there were four similar weather-related events that occurred in Allegheny County. In 2019, severe weather inversions happened twice—one episode in February and the most recent one last month,” ACHD Interim Director Ron Sugar said in a statement. “Prior to December’s inversions, the county was on track for the second year in a row – and in our history – to be in compliance with air quality standards. That accomplishment is now at risk.”
He added that “while the county may still attain the EPA standard in accordance with its recently submitted State Implementation Plan,” the health department recorded exceedances of the 24-hour PM2.5 federal National Ambient Air Quality Standard at the Liberty Monitor for six consecutive days.
“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,” Sugar said. “These extended exceedances and higher pollution levels are a clear threat to the health of the county’s residents, but ACHD’s current regulations do not provide options to address this issue.”
He mentioned information system upgraded and the addition of legal, field, and professional staff that will enable the department to “continue to increase our enforcement capabilities for all permitted facilities in Allegheny County.”
Sugar said ACHD will also take these steps to improve air quality as it relates to temperature inversions to further combat climate change:
- ACHD will propose a new air quality regulation in 2020 aimed at emission mitigation requirements for industry operating in the county during weather-related pollution episodes. The goal is to have emission reduction plans in place that could be implemented within 24 hours of notice from ACHD that a public health hazard exists.
- The department will “build an infrastructure to model and forecast inversion events as a necessary component for effective policy implementation.” Enhanced meteorological forecasting is a key element of this strategy, ACHD noted, adding that the expectation is that there will also be additional public notifications that will be possible.
- ACHD officials will “continue to engage elected officials at the local, state and federal level to ensure comprehensive and workable solutions are advanced for improving air quality in the region.” Sugar said that through these partnerships, ACHD will continue to recommend and assist in the development of policy solutions to provide additional tools to the department. He cited House Bill 1752, sponsored by Rep. Austin Davis, as one example. Additionally, a companion bill has also been introduced by Sen. Katie Muth in the state Senate. That legislation would increase fines for facilities found to exceed established pollution thresholds and require industry to notify affected communities of potential health impacts when unforeseen accidents compromise facilities’ pollution controls.
GASP said it was a positive first step.
“It appears ACHD is getting the message that County residents are fed up with our poor air quality and refuse to accept weather conditions as the only mediating factor,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said. “The steps that ACHD proposes are welcome news and we look forward to working with ACHD to formulate regulations that help stem industrial emissions when weather is forecast to be poor. We hope the department will be equally eager to adopt stricter coke-oven regulations—a move that would help reduce industrial emissions every day.
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