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Residents Press Allegheny County To Do More For Air Quality

Jared Murphy
90.5 WESA News
Protesters at the City-County Building in downtown Pittsburgh demand stricter air quality regulations.

Air quality activists protested at the City County Building in downtown Pittsburgh, before Friday’s Allegheny County Board of Health meeting, to voice dissatisfaction with the county’s efforts to improve air quality.

“Show us that you take your name, the Allegheny County Health Department, seriously," said activist and filmmaker Mark Dixon, "because we seriously depend on your protection from power-hungry polluters, and we are angry about the job you’re doing with that."

Local pediatrician Dr. Deborah Gentile also spoke at the protest. Gentile studies the effects of air quality regulations, and has found that children who live near the US Steel Clairton Coke Plant facility have higher rates of asthma than in other parts of the county.

She said the health department needs to warn and provide follow-up care for residents affected by increased pollution during temperature inversions, which occurred in the Mon Valley for several days before Christmas.

“This last event resulted in unhealthy air for all,” she said. “Not just sensitive groups, not just asthmatics and those with COPD and asthma, for all.”

The department’s Jim Kelly said the county has not only taken legal action against US Steel, but has also strengthened its capacity to collect and analyze air quality data. And last week, the department announced plans to create new regulations to further curtail pollution.

But Kelly said the department is subject to state and federal laws, and that any enforcement actions will be challenged.

“We can’t be arbitrary about developing regulations,” he said. “We have to have data to show that it is feasible and that we have the authority to do that.”

Michael Rhoads, plant manager of the Clairton Coke Plant, spoke during the meeting’s public comment portion, saying that many factors contribute to the Mon Valley’s weather and air quality.

“We’ve made tremendous improvements at our facility and we continue to do so,” said Rhoads. “Recently, US Steel voluntarily committed to a 20 percent reduction in our green-house gas emission intensity by 2030.”

But Clairton resident Art Thomas said US Steel has been violating air quality regulations and harming human health for a long time.

“It’s ridiculous, the conditions we’re made to live in,” he said.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.