How should Allegheny County spend the $11.8 million in fines it’s collected from companies polluting more than their air permits allow?
The answer to that question has been a focus of tension between the Allegheny County Health Department and some environmental groups. Both parties advocate for public health, but they have differing opinions on how the money in the Clean Air Fund should be spent.
The health department wants to spend up to half the fund balance on renovating an older building the county owns in Lawrenceville to house a new air quality program headquarters. If approved, it would be the largest one-time allocation from the fund since at least 2003.
Those against spending the money on a headquarters for the air program say directing the money toward capital projects goes against the spirit of why the fund was created.
Instead, they’d like to see the fund support the planting of more trees, reducing diesel fumes and educating county denizens about air issues.
"Given the sorry state of our air, it is critical that the [Allegheny County Health Department] use the Clean Air Fund to underwrite projects that will create tangible improvements to air quality and educate citizens about the dangers of air pollution,” Rachel Filippini, the executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution [GASP], wrote in an email.
Filippini is also one of the 10 members of the health department’s Air Pollution Control Advisory Committee, which evaluates if projects should get money from the Clean Air Fund.
The health department, which also wants to add more air program employees and upgrade equipment, sees the money as an opportunity to improve the air quality program without waiting for county tax dollars.
“The renovations will allow the program to expand to provide additional space, including space for public meetings and community engagement, and would also allow for new or upgraded equipment as needs arise,” Ryan Scarpino, the health department’s spokesperson, wrote in an email.
The headquarters project would also, finally, put the money to use. The $11.8 million balance has built up over several years. According to advisory board members, no formal process has ever been put in place to spend the money collected from fighting pollution.
What is the Clean Air Fund?
Companies pay into the Clean Air Fund when they violate the terms of their air permits. The permits give companies the ‘right’ to emit a limited amount of specific pollutants. The amount varies based on the type of pollutant emitted.
The fund was created nearly 40 years ago as the state tried to implement the federal Clean Air Act. The fund balance increases by an average of $1.3 million a year. And, a recent increase in civil penalties for violating air permits could lead to even more money collected in the future.
According to county laws related to the fund, the money is intended to be used on efforts to improve air quality.
For example, the county’s Board of Health has used the Clean Air Fund to pay for a study of diesel fumes Downtown ($860,000 in 2011), for solar panels at the Community College of Allegheny County ($400,000 in 2015), and on a program that allowed residents to swap out gas lawn mowers for electric ones ($12,000 each year from 2014 to 2017).
Over the past four years, an average of $1.1 million has been annually disbursed from the fund, according to Scarpino.
The question of whether or not the fund can be used for county capital projects has come up before. In 2006, the county proposed using $1.2 million to demolish the asbestos-filled remnants of a U.S. Steel plant. GASP sued the county to prevent it, arguing that the private company should be responsible for it.
A judge later stopped the project from receiving Clean Air Fund money.
Two years later, the county withdrew a proposal to use $270,000 for a road widening project after GASP raised concerns about the project. The county said it would ease congestion.
In 2009, the county changed the rules guiding the fund. An amendment authorized the use of the fund for “any other project that is consistent with the purpose of this section and the mission of the Board of Health.”
Since the changes, the fund has been used to finance internships and plant trees as well as to fix a roof, add energy-efficient windows and replace a boiler in the air quality program’s current location, in another Lawrenceville building.
According to county spokespeople, using the Clean Air Fund for the renovated headquarters makes sense.
“Throughout the 26-year history of the [air quality program], the county has provided for many of the large costs of the program, including providing a location and other building improvements needed to support the program,” Scarpino wrote in an email.
Allegheny County spokesperson Amie Downs agreed. While the county has funded the air program over time, she said the option to use the fund for more of the program’s everyday expenses has always existed.
And, Downs said, using the Clean Air Fund instead of county dollars makes financial sense in a time when “...there are so many more demands upon the county’s resources.”
What’s happening now?
The Frank B. Clack Health Center is an eight-building facility next to Arsenal Park in Lawrenceville. Built in the early 1900s, 120 health department staffers work there; 50 are in the air quality program.
For at least two years, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the department has planned to upgrade the air quality program’s offices, citing space concerns.
Scarpino elaborated on the need; he said employees are doubling up in offices and that meeting spaces are cramped. If the project is approved, the air quality program would move from building 7 off of 39th Street to a renovated building 1.
Meanwhile, a Feb. 22 draft of an audit by the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] supported expanding the air quality program’s staff.
The audit found the agency was behind on 13 out of 32 permits for Title V pollution sources; 10 permits had expired and were past their year-and-a-half review period, while three had never been issued.
Title V sources, a classification established by the Clean Air Act, include major polluters like U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works and the Cheswick power plant.
The Clean Air Council — a Pennsylvania-based conservation group — threatened to file a lawsuit against the EPA earlier this month for not sanctioning the county health department.
The group says the ACHD should be sanctioned for its backlog and “undermining the public participation requirements of the Clean Air Act.” With the agency lagging on renewals, the council argues that county residents don’t have the opportunity to review and provide input on air permits.
In 2016, the estimated cost of the renovation project for the air quality program headquarters was $9.3 million. At the time, the health department recommended that $4.7 million come out of the Clean Air Fund. Another $450,000 from the fund was already spent on a feasibility study and design work.
According to Scarpino, the design is 60 percent complete. He estimated that $5 to $6 million would be drawn from the Clean Air Fund for the project, if approved.
The most allocated from the fund since 2003 for a sole project was about $1.1 million in 2004, for a study of Neville Island, according to minutes from Board of Health meetings.
Jayme Graham, the health department’s air program manager, said there would still be enough money in the fund for future endeavors.
“The fund has been sufficient for any kind of projects that people have come to us for or we have developed, so I don’t feel it’s going to strangle us,” Graham said. “We still have the opportunity to spend a significant amount of money on good projects if good projects come our way.”
Earlier this year, the county changed its civil penalty policy, Scarpino said. Applied to 2016’s violations, he said the new policies could result in a 60 percent increase in fines, which could help replenish the fund.
But GASP’s Filippini said it’s too early to tell if the new rules will have an effect on the fund. Plus, she said focusing on new funding misses the point.
“The health department shouldn't be looking at how to raise more money for the Clean Air Fund so they can use it for building repairs,” she said. “They should be looking at how to use it for systemic change that will result in less pollution overall.”
Filippini, along with other environmentalists like Zach Barber of PennEnvironment, attended a Feb. 12 advisory committee meeting to state their case to the board.
Barber, an organizer with the statewide environmental activist group, said the renovations were important due to the age of the building.
But he made clear that he wasn’t comfortable with funding the upgrades with the Clean Air Fund, when the $5 to $6 million could be used for other initiatives like planting trees or supporting citizen air monitoring efforts.
Filippini and another member of the Air Pollution Control Advisory Committee say the Clean Air Fund funding process can be inefficient and lacks objective review.
Essentially, if air quality staffers see value in a project idea, they put it on the advisory committee’s agenda. If the committee feels similarly, they pass it on to the Board of Health for formal approval.
The proposals usually come from private partners, including environmental nonprofits. For example, a $920,000 program to help construction contractors retrofit diesel equipment on their dump trucks, backhoes and other heavy equipment passed in 2010. Filippini said the idea came from GASP.
The department found a partner, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Air Management Association, to implement the program in 2010.
As of late, proposals seeking money from the fund have slowed, according to Scarpino. Filippini said many organizations don’t even know the fund exists, which limits what the money can do.
“It’s fair to say that more effective, more worthy projects could be coming to the committee on a regular basis,” Filippini said.
Another advisory committee member, Robert Orchowski, said he takes issue with the process. Orchowski previously worked for Duquesne Light and Orion Power for 30 years as an environmental compliance officer before starting his own consultancy.
He said the current system does not weigh the pros and cons of spending fund money.
“I have constantly commented there needs to be objectivity in how the monies are spent,” Orchowski said. “What are the projects the county can fund that will achieve the most emissions reduction for the fewest amount of dollars?”
He said using a metric, such as dollar per ton of emissions reduced, could lead to better results.
At February’s committee meeting, Graham alluded to a recent slowdown in spending on new projects. She attributed it to changes in the allocation process that add more open bidding and project scoring.
To counter the slowdown, Scarpino said the department is preparing to ask the Board of Health to issue a request for proposals seeking several small-scale air improvement and educational projects that total $300,000.
As for the renovation project proposal, Scarpino said he expected the plans to be finished in late spring and then sent to the advisory committee for a vote.
Filippini wants to make sure that when that happens, she and the board have plenty of time to look over the designs.
“People need to start thinking about it now instead of seeing it on an agenda and only having 24 hours to think about it,” she added.
When weighing the need for improvements and available funding sources, Orchowski characterized himself as a reluctant ‘yes’ in favor of approving the use of the Clean Air Fund for the air program’s headquarters.
“I think we would be better off if the county would fund this out of their operating budget,” he said. “But the reality is — given how tight their budget is — if it doesn't come out of the Clean Air Fund, it’s not going to happen or it would take many years.”
Stephen Caruso is a journalist who covers government and politics at The PLS Reporter, an online news outlet focused on Pennsylvania state and local topics. He also freelances. Reach Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @StephenJ_Caruso.