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New Allegheny County Council Members Want To Improve Air Quality, But What Power Do They Have?

Smokestacks at the Clairton Coke Works.
Reid Frazier
StateImpact Pennsylvania
Emissions from U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works.

Earlier this month, three young, progressive-leaning Democrats joined the 15-member Allegheny County Council: Liv Bennett, Bethany Hallam and Tom Duerr. All three spoke about making the county's air cleaner during their campaigns, and Hallam reiterated her commitment to cleaner air during her swearing in.

"We must strengthen enforcement of our existing air quality laws," Hallam said on January 2. "And reduce the amount of toxic pollutants and emissions in our air."

But according to the Allegheny County Law Department, the power to change air quality regulations belongs almost exclusively to the Health Department and Board of Health. That's due in large part to the federal Clean Air Act and a power hand-off from the state of Pennsylvania.

If new regulations are drafted within those bodies, Council votes on whether to approve them.

"If you want to do anything of any significance in regards to air quality, it would have to go through the Health Department," said county solicitor Andy Szefi.

Szefi was hesitant to say there are no instances in which Council could pass regulations that don't come directly from the Board of Health, but he didn't provide any specific examples.

Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution, or GASP, said despite Council's limited ability, she's excited for the new members.

"Ultimately, if we're going to have new or revised air quality regulations, it is Council that will vote on those," Filippini said. 

On January 2, the Allegheny County Health Departmentpledged to draft new regulations that would apply during temperature inversions, which can create especially smoggy conditions. Once those are approved by ACHD, they will move to Council for approval.

Fillipini said she hopes Council will put pressure on the Health Department to draft new regulations on coke oven gas as well. According to Szefi, Council can push for stricter regulations on polluters, but the Board of Health isn't required to oblige.

The county Health Department is currently searching for a permanent replacement for former director Dr. Karen Hacker, who left last summer. Environmental Groups, like PennEnvironment, have urged the county to hire a new head who will prioritize air quality.