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PennEnvironment Says Incoming Allegheny County Health Director Must Prioritize Air Quality

Reid R. Frazier
StateImpact Pennsylvania
U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works received multiple air pollution violations in the last few years.

Environmental activists are asking the Allegheny County Health Department to step up air quality monitoring and enforcement. Advocacy group PennEnvironment releaseda sweeping reportThursday looking at several decades of enforcement actions. 

Previous Health Department Director Dr. Karen Hacker stepped down from her role last month. As the Department looks for a new leader, PennEnvironment field organizer Zachary Barber said the next person to lead the department needs to prioritize air quality.

"The Health Department, of course, has a lot of different responsibilities, and often air quality has fallen to the bottom of that priority list," Barber said. "Despite the fact that it's consistently ranked as one of the top health challenges in the region."

PennEnvironment's report alleges that ACHD's approach to environmental enforcement is subpar. They say past negotiated consent orderswith industrial polluters, including U.S. Steel facilities in Clairton and Braddock, have been too lax and lead to continuous pollution.

The report identifies seven particular industrial facilities as being among the county's biggest sources of emissions:

  • U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works, Clairton
  • U.S. Steel Edgar Thomson Works, Braddock
  • Eastman Chemicals and Resins, West Elizabeth
  • McConway & Torley, Lawrenceville
  • ATI Flat Rolled Products, Brackenridge
  • Harsco Metals, Natrona
  • Allied Waste's Imperial Landfill, Imperial

In a statement, Dr. Edie Shapira, head of the search committee for the new director, said the Health Department and Board of Health have been and will be committed to robust air quality monitoring and enforcement.
"The new director will have our full support in these activities, regardless of the individual and professional background of the individual who is selected," Shapira said.

ACHD Deputy Director of Environmental Health, Jim Kelly responded to PennEnvironment's report in a statement Thursday evening:

"It’s unfortunate that today’s report focused on old enforcement actions, rather than recognizing the efforts by ACHD to provide stronger enforcement and more stringent regulations. Our actions clearly demonstrate our renewed focus on achieving future air quality improvements.

We will continue to be aggressive and proactive, and proceed with our efforts to hold industry accountable for adherence to all local, state and federal air regulations. We continue to work with elected officials to have additional tools and resources, and thank Rep. Austin Davis for his work with us on legislation this week that would increase air pollution fines.

We also recognize that enforcement and policy will not achieve all of our goals. We continue to call upon industry leaders at the local and regional levels to accelerate change to make the air better for all residents, and invite advocates to join us in that charge."

*This post was updated at 7:55 a.m. on Aug. 16, 2019 to include Kelly's statement.