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After String Of Smoggy Days, County Wants Polluters To Reduce Emissions During Some Weather Events

Reid Frazier
Allegheny Front
Pollution from the Clairton Coke Works in Clairton, Pa.

The Allegheny County Health Department has announced a new effort to fight weather-related air pollution events. The move follows six consecutive December days of small particle pollution exceedances downwind of U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works, which were linked to temperature inversions in the Mon Valley.

"We know from research that inversions are expected to get worse with climate change, we're seeing that first-hand here," ACHD interim director Ronald Sugar said in a written statement. "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."

By the end of 2020, Sugar said the County will propose new regulations that would require industrial polluters to reduce emissions during weather-related pollution days. Corrective actions would have to be put into action within 24 hours of notice from the Health Department.

The Department will also invest in meteorological forecasting to detect inversion days farther in advance, and advocate for more aggressive air quality policy on a state and local level. 

As the string of smoggy days continued last month in the Mon Valley, environmental advocacy groups called on the health department to update and strengthen air quality requirements. Activists plan to make the case for more stringent emissions regulations again at next week's Board of Health meeting.

"We need tools like this to help protect human health on the worst days of the year," said Zachary Barber, a clean air advocate with PennEnvironment. "We'll have to wait and see what the final policy is to make sure it goes far enough to keep people protected."

Barber said this announcement is one of several positive steps the department has undertaken since Dr. Karen Hacker took the helm in 2013. Hacker left last summer, and the department is now led by Sugar until a permanent director is instated.

Myron Arnowitt, state director for environmental group Clean Water Action, said he's not confident industrial polluters, such as U.S. Steel, will comply with this plan. 

"We want to see more be required of U.S. Steel to make sure that they're reducing pollution," Arnowitt said. "I think what happened over Christmas demonstrates that what they've done so far is clearly not enough to protect people."

“We have been operating at reduced capacity, including during that [December] period, and were in compliance with our permits,” a spokesperson for U.S. Steel said in a statement. “Recently, we voluntarily committed to a 20 percent reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions intensity by 2030 ... we continue to work closely with the ACHD to improve our region’s air quality.”

This story was updated on Thursday, January 2, 2020 at 3:15 p.m. to include a statement from U.S. Steel.