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How Allegheny County is trying to make air quality easier to understand

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Katie Blackley
/
90.5 WESA

The Allegheny County Health Department says the public is often confused about the various laws and rules that stipulate how it is allowed to regulate air pollution, so it has released a new report explaining it in a more digestible way.

“We recognize that understanding all of the various aspects of air monitoring can be challenging, which is why we undertook this effort to break down the science of air quality in a way that is more easily understandable,” said the deputy director of environmental Geoff Rabinowitz.

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In the past, the health department released an annual report that described the changes in air quality from one year to the next. But the report was filled with data and charts that wouldn’t make a lot of sense unless someone already understood how air quality regulation works.

This new report breaks down the science of how the department measures air pollution and shows how residents can get involved and how they can make a complaint. The report also highlights some of the department’s new initiatives, such as the installation of new, higher-quality air monitors.

The report, subtitled “The Process of Progress,” underlines the long-term improvements in the region’s air quality. “Our region is dedicated to cleaning our air. While that dedication and work has brought great progress, there is still more work to be done,” said Dr. Debra Bogen, the department director. “This report shares information about that journey and our recent accomplishments.”

Some air quality advocates have praised the new report. "This inaugural report has a lot of good stuff in it – from instructions on how to make an odor complaint to an introduction to the department's monitoring network and staff," GASP executive director Patrick Campbell said in a statement. "We encourage folks to take a look, get informed, and stay engaged."

Matthew Mehalik, the executive director of the Breathe Project, praised the new information about the department’s air quality monitors. “This report is much better than what they have released in the past in terms of accessibility,” he said.

But the report also has some misleading information, he said. There’s a page in the report that highlights health department efforts to increase public participation in the permitting process for a new natural gas power plant in Westmoreland County. The report paints this effort as a success, Mehalik said, but at a public hearing, “not one person from the community spoke out in favor of this project or facility.”

The report also doesn’t mention that federal air quality regulations are over a decade old and will be made more stringent in 2023, Mehalik said. “And our region will most certainly not meet these updated standards,” he said.

He thinks the county should focus on improving air quality to meet the new standards rather than focusing on the relatively short period it will be in compliance with the old standards.

Although the local air quality technically meets federal regulations, the health department is still in the process of submitting paperwork and getting public feedback to officially put the region into compliance with the Clean Air Act, according to Neil Ruhland, a spokesperson for the health department.

“We're not at the end of our journey with any of this. We're probably a little bit more toward the middle of it,” Ruhland said. “The finish line is having the best possible air quality that we can have.”

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.