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Allegheny County to create new Department of Sustainability

The sun shines around Erica Sandbothe as she crosses walkway platforms suspended from trees as she participates in what is called "A Treetop Adventure" during a company outing on Friday, Oct. 17, 2014, in Allegheny County's North Park near McCandless, Pa.
Keith Srakocic
The sun shines around Erica Sandbothe as she crosses walkway platforms suspended from trees as she participates in what is called "A Treetop Adventure" during a company outing on Friday, Oct. 17, 2014, in Allegheny County's North Park near McCandless, Pa.

Allegheny County officials are working to establish a brand-new department dedicated to boosting the county’s work on environmental issues.

The county already has an Office of Sustainability and a sustainability manager who reports to the Department of Facilities Management. That department oversees all the county-owned nursing homes, office buildings, parks and more.

Earlier this summer, Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald and all 15 members of Allegheny County Council teamed up to introduce an ordinance that would create a standalone Department of Sustainability.

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Advocates said creating the new department will give the county’s sustainability initiatives more attention and their own line item in the budget.

“Just having it a separate department might bring more accountability and also elevate the work that the county is presently doing,” said Anita Prizio, the chair of county council’s Committee on Sustainability and Green Initiatives.

Prizio hopes the change will help reduce red tape and make it easier for the county to launch new programs.

“The director of sustainability would report directly to the county manager instead of the facilities department,” Prizio said. “I think there is an opportunity to expand the county’s commitment to sustainability.”

The ordinance tasks the department with establishing sustainability goals for each county department, evaluating if the departments reach these benchmarks, and authoring an annual public Report on Sustainability. It requires each county department to send one representative to an ad hoc “County Green Team” that will develop “practical, actionable” sustainability goals for the county.

The new department will also work with the county Purchasing Office to ensure that “sustainable procurement practices across departments.”

“This department will have a lot of say in how we can continue to improve things using best practices, but actually being intentional about what happens,” said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “We don’t just open up a park system and let things go without any intentionality,” he added, noting that the eventual department head will likely be asked to give input on the “design and operation” for things like green infrastructure projects.

Allegheny County has made some progress towards its environmental goals. The county’s latest sustainability report, released in August, touts the region’s improved air quality. Allegheny County met federal air quality standards for the second consecutive year in 2022.
However, some local environmental groups have critiqued the county’s past efforts, noting that they may not go far enough to make meaningful improvements.

“It is disappointing that Allegheny County would align its sustainability achievements to the standards set by the Trump EPA on air quality," Breathe Project executive director Matthew Mehalik said in a statement, referring to a 2020 decision by the Environmental Protection Agency toreject more stringent air quality standards.

“And our county and health department celebrate meeting these outdated standards as a major achievement in their sustainability report. This suggests the report lacks substance when it comes to the real story about one of our region's most pressing sustainability issues: poor air quality from major industrial sources of pollution.”

Fitzgerald has also been criticized for his support of fracking. In July, Fitzgeraldvetoed a bill that banned natural gas fracking in county parks. County council latervoted to override that veto and the ban passed.

Fitzgerald said he is “very, very proud” of his administration’s record on environmental issues.

Though county officials hope to have the new Department of Sustainability up and running as soon as the start of 2023, many of the logistics still need to be ironed out. Fitzgerald said he plans to include a proposed budget for the department in the 2023 budget, officials don’t yet know how much money it will be allocated.

The current plan calls for the existing Office of Sustainability to be incorporated into the new department, but it is unclear how many employees will staff it.

When the Department of Sustainability begins its work, Prizio hopes it will tackle an ambitious agenda, including an updated assessment of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions and a county-wide climate action plan.

Prizio said the department is a step towards prioritizing sustainability in Allegheny County but added that creating the department is just one of many steps the county must take.

“It’s a start. It’s not going to solve all the sustainability issues, but it’s a start to have a department.”

County council’s Committee on Sustainability and Green Initiatives unanimously voted to affirmatively recommend the ordinance to the full council last week. Council is expected to vote on the bill in mid-September.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at