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Allegheny County Controller announces first audit of the Clean Air Fund

A factory building next to a hillside
Gene J. Puskar
Part of the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works is shown on Thursday, May 2, 2019 in Clairton, Pa. The money in Allegheny County's Clean Air Fund comes from penalties and fines paid by polluters.

Residents could soon have greater clarity on how penalty fines from polluters are spent in Allegheny County. County Controller Corey O’Connor announced Thursday his office plans to audit the Clean Air Fund, a pot of money largely used to address air quality issues within the county.

O’Connor first floated the idea in a set of climate action recommendations for the county released after he was appointed to the office in 2022. He said the audit may be the first done for the nearly $10 million fund and added that the guidelines for accessing the money aren’t always clear to the public.

“More municipalities across the county are starting to shift — whether it's buying electric vehicles, putting in [electric vehicle] charging stations, putting in solar panels — those kind of long-term conversations are what we're seeing in a lot of areas that may have not talked about it before,” O’Connor told WESA.

The audit will examine how many people or groups apply for funds, whether they were denied, the basic parameters they must meet to secure funding, the process by which community organizations apply for and are awarded grants from the fund and the extent of the input Allegheny County Health Department sought from affected communities about the use of the fund’s resources.

“A lot of that stuff needs to be a little more clear, especially coming under new administration,” said O’Connor, referring to Democrat Sara Innamorato’s recent victory in the county executive race.

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During the campaign, Innamorato pledged to address the county’s poor air quality and high asthma rates by “[cracking] down on polluters and [ending] the ‘pay to pollute’ policies that put our communities at risk.”

“Pay to pollute” refers to the practice of allowing industrial sources of pollution to more or less continue operations unabated if they pay a fine — fines that ultimately sustain the county’s Clean Air Fund.

Additionally, Allegheny County Council recently directed the county’s Department of Sustainability to create a “climate action plan” to guide the county’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

O’Connor said his office plans to hold other county officials accountable to those guidelines.

The controller’s office will also look at how money from the Clean Air Fund has been utilized, if it was allocated according to the purposes for which the fund was established, and how county officials evaluate the efficacy of projects completed using the funds.

The money is intended “solely to support activities related to the improvement of air quality within Allegheny County and to support activities which will increase or improve knowledge concerning air pollution, its causes, its effects, and the control thereof,” according to the rule establishing the fund. In the past, disbursements have gone to air pollution monitoring efforts and studies of the health effects of air pollution.

The fund came under scrutiny earlier this year after the county health department’s Air Quality Program sought to increase the portion of the Clean Air Fund it can use for its operating expenses. Advocates and community groups opposed the proposal, but it also cast a spotlight on a little-considered fund.

O’Connor said the audit will help identify gaps in how the Clean Air Fund is currently used, and provide a helpful baseline for the fund moving forward.

“This is money from polluters. It's not taxpayer money. These are fines and penalties that come to the county through pollution,” he said. “What ways can we use these to help people, help their communities out better our air quality all across the county, but then set new guidelines?”

The audit could be completed by early 2024.

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