A decade of cleaner air ended in controversy and questions about Allegheny County’s future

Allegheny County reckons with new challenges and questions about priorities after a decade of improving air quality ended in one of the worst pollution episodes in recent memory.

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U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works has been a central element in the debate over air quality in Allegheny County. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

For Allegheny County, 2019 was a year of reckoning with the consequences of two fires at the U.S. Steel plant in Clairton.

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A blaze in December 2018 was followed by a second fire the next June. Meanwhile, the American Lung Association gave Allegheny County’s air another F grade, and residents logged thousands of new complaints on the Smell PGH app.

The county’s air in 2018 was actually the cleanest it had been since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1963. But as 2019 ended, an eerie smog hung over the area. Lingering for six days, it contained some of the worst air pollution in recent memory. 

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald started to field a lot of questions during the smog event, including from his wife: “Why do you keep looking at your phone?” 

He was watching the air quality monitors, he said, calling his staff during their holidays and asking the health department, “What’s going on?"

At the start of a new decade, the challenges of local air pollution enforcement are changing. It’s critical for regulators to respond to unexpected events as effectively as ongoing pollution. And climate change is making their job harder. 

About 100 residents and activists showed up to the City-County Building in Downtown Pittsburgh on Jan. 10, 2020, to call for more action to improve local air after a series of unhealthy air days at the end of 2019. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

The air quality in the next decade will also be shaped by a regional economic debate about the expansion of the petrochemical industry and fracking, which could increase pollution in Allegheny County.

For officials like Fitzgerald, the vast improvement of air quality compared to the past is something that should be celebrated, even if more progress is needed. Air quality activists are less interested in the past, noting that at present, the air is among the dirtiest in the country. 

But some of the biggest changes may not be up to regulators: U.S. Steel recently put one of its coke oven batteries on “hot idle” for economic reasons, which reduces pollution, and has promised to build cleaner technology to reduce emissions even more. And whoever is running the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] could limit or enhance the county’s ability to take action in the future.

Past vs. present

Air quality advocates have criticized Fitzgerald for not being as vocal about pushing for air quality improvements as he is for improvements in the economy. Particularly, they note that he didn’t show up for several public events after the December 2018 Clairton fire. 

Two weeks ago, a Google engineer wrote a first-person essay in PublicSource that sparked controversy: The engineer said he was leaving because of the air quality — and encouraging others to avoid Pittsburgh. 

When asked if there were more people like the Google engineer, who might be turned away by the air quality, Fitzgerald said, “I'm sure that there are lots of people that have lots of different opinions.”

He thinks that’s part of the “new Pittsburgh-old Pittsburgh” challenge: the area’s problems look different depending on how long people have lived in the region. 

“For people that have lived here and grown up here, they realize it's way better, way better than it's ever been and continues to get better,” he said. “So maybe, for somebody that just moves here and says, ‘Well, why wasn't it always better?’ I get that dichotomy.”

Fitzgerald appeared on television following the publication of the essay to share that Google reached out to assure him of the company’s commitment to Pittsburgh. Google issued a statement to the public that said the essay was the opinion of one employee and touted its environmental efforts.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The region’s struggles with air quality have become entangled in debates about the region’s economic future. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said business leaders tell him to clean the city’s air and water if he wants to attract their business and worries about welcoming additional industrial polluters to the region. Fitzgerald says he’s never heard these complaints and welcomes the jobs. 

Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution [GASP], said she is still waiting for Fitzgerald to signal to her that air quality is as big a priority for him as the economy. “I think he needs to come out very boldly, very strongly to say, ‘Cleaning up our air is going to be a top priority for me, that I acknowledge that our air pollution is a threat to public health and that I acknowledge that all county residents are affected by our poor air quality and that our economic health is affected by our poor air quality,’” she said. “And then he needs to match those types of statements with actual action.

Improvements and smog

Fitzgerald notes that, over the past decade, two of the worst kinds of air pollution in the area have fallen. Particulate matter dropped by 50% and sulfur dioxide dropped by 88%.

“Boy, if I could have an 88% reduction in vehicular fatalities, or an 88% reduction in the dropout rate or an 88% reduction in early deaths, opioid overdoses, that would be tremendous,” Fitzgerald said, drawing attention to the size of the change.

But the improvements haven’t been spread equally. At the Monongahela Valley monitor closest to the Clairton Coke Works, the amount of sulfur dioxide in the air only fell by 27% between 2008 and 2018. 

And levels of fine particulate matter, the most dangerous of all the pollutants according to the health department, actually started to increase around 2014 in Clairton. Vulnerable residents there, including low-income children and the elderly, have some of the highest rates of asthma in the country.

U.S. Steel’s compliance rates had dropped; it was polluting even more than it had been. So the health department ratcheted up enforcement, increasing the severity of its fines — with regular fines topping around $2.6 million annually in the past two years — and requiring U.S. Steel to make improvements to its operations. Last week, the health department fined U.S. Steel nearly $800,000 for pollution violations in the third quarter of 2019. 

Air quality advocates say even these larger fines are a tiny fraction of U.S. Steel’s business and are not enough to change its behavior. U.S. Steel didn’t respond to a request for comment from PublicSource.

The particulate pollution was finally starting to drop again when the Clairton fire in December 2018 caught the health department off guard. But the health department had a relatively swift response to a second fire in June 2019 and again to the December 2019 inversion. 

Allegheny County was on pace to comply with federal regulations for air quality at the time of this November 2019 air quality protest. A week of unhealthy air in December imperiled the county's compliance and drew many more attendees to a January air quality protest. (Photo by Jay Manning / PublicSource)

Jim Kelly, the county’s deputy director of environmental health, said the holiday fog was the type of weather event he’s been worried about for years. In February 2019, Kelly testified to state politicians that the air quality regulations needed to be updated so that they could, “mandate that coke plants and all industry reduce production during air action days.”

Climate change may be making these events more severe. Between 2008 and 2018 there were only four multi-day extreme weather events, Kelly said, with a strong temperature inversion and little wind. There were two multi-day events just last year, he said, which resulted in nine days of unhealthy air. Allegheny County had several days of severe weather in September that didn’t lead to air quality violations. The inversions then were followed by several days of normal weather that pushed the pollution away. 

In December, U.S. Steel was emitting less pollution than in September, but the air quality during the December event was much worse. That’s because there were six days in a row of temperature inversions, and the pollution kept building up. U.S. Steel didn’t heed calls from local air quality activists who called on it to reduce emissions as the weather trapped the pollution.

A week later, the health department announced a plan to update its regulations so that the next time the weather turned bad, U.S. Steel may not have a choice. Fitzgerald said the health department’s proposed new regulations will allow the county to “get the word out to people not only just warning them about what's happening,” but also to “go to our industrial partners and say, ‘Hey, you've got to cut back, you've got to reduce, whatever we could do there.’"

The county plans to contract or hire additional staff to better predict when the poor air quality is coming. Right now, Kelly said their current weather forecasting isn’t reliable enough. Kelly said he hopes to have the updated regulations ready in less than a year but that depends somewhat on the public process. 

Jim Kelly, Allegheny County's deputy director of environmental health, listening to residents speak about air quality during a January 2020 meeting of Allegheny County's Board of Health. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Kelly said he has “a long wish list” of additional protective measures he could take but that he’s reluctant to talk about them in public because he doesn’t know which ones he’ll have the resources and the legal authority to enact.

The health department has been “battle hardened” by the fires and inversions, Kelly said, and they’ve been improving their tools to respond more quickly next time.

Adequate resources

Announcing a plan for a new regulation and enacting it are two separate things.

The health department is behind on one of its earlier promises to crack down on “fugitive emissions.” The department announced a plan in May 2018 to tighten the regulations around coke ovens, so that the amount of pollution escaping inadvertently would decrease. This would potentially reduce the release of hydrogen sulfide, a gas that has limited health consequences but smells like rotten eggs.

Kelly said the department had to shift resources around after the fire at Clairton Coke Works and because of the additional legal work from their lawsuit and enforcement orders with U.S. Steel. That put the department’s efforts to regulate the smelly air on hold, and it’s also been tied up as part of a lawsuit against U.S. Steel. 

Filippini said that, while the health department has made a number of important improvements over the past few years, it still isn’t keeping the public adequately informed about its progress on issues like the proposed coke oven regulations. 

And the department keeps asking for patience, but a year and a half later, she doesn’t know what the department has done. “I've seen no progress on this,” she said. “How patient are we supposed to be?”

She thinks the health department’s “air program has been more reactionary than looking at issues in a proactive, preventive way,” she said. “And I think part of that is because they only have so much staff and so much resources.”

Fitzgerald said the health department has more resources than it’s ever had to tackle air pollution and he believes the funding is sufficient to tackle its regular duties. “We could never anticipate something like [the Clairton fire] was going to occur at that given time,” said Jennifer Liptak, Fitzgerald’s chief of staff. "So it wasn't necessarily that there was a lack of staffing within the department overall.”

Moving forward

In addition to the changing weather, the health department will have to adapt to changing economic conditions. 

The largest single source of air pollution in the area, U.S. Steel, has struggled financially and has been accused by former employees of not spending enough on equipment maintenance. Investors said in a lawsuit that this may have contributed to last year’s fire. 

Several public officials and Clairton residents said that, except for a brief post on Facebook, the county did little to communicate about the fire and resulting pollution concern for more than two weeks. By that point, a local air monitor had recorded pollution in excess of the legal limit on six occasions. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

Air quality activists have criticized Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald for showing up to press conferences with U.S. Steel but not to air quality events, like this one in January 2019 after the fire at Clairton Coke Works. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

Fitzgerald touts his work on the county council to fight indoor smoking to show that he takes improving air quality seriously. He said his most important step to address air quality as county executive was hiring Karen Hacker, the former director of the health department, who hired Kelly. “They've been very, very forward-thinking and proactive in holding industry to the fire,” Fitzgerald said.

Kelly said the health department learned a lot about how to respond to a fire event and will be more prepared for anything like that in the future. Last year, when a second fire happened at Clairton Coke Works, the health department responded within a day demanding that U.S. Steel make repairs within 20 days or shut down.

But Kelly said he believes the department will be taking additional measures in the future to anticipate pollution problems, although he declined to say what they are yet. 

U.S. Steel promised to spend $1.2 billion locally to upgrade its plants in Braddock and Clairton, which would reduce how much pollution is released. But since that announcement, the company’s profits have decreased, it has reduced production at the Clairton Coke Works, and announced it will only invest $200 million in the Mon Valley in 2020, half of what was originally planned.

Despite all of its recent challenges, including a likely uptick in some pollution recorded in 2019, Kelly showed graphs at the January Board of Health meeting that showed the county is on schedule to come into compliance with federal clean air regulations by 2021. 

That could make its ability to clean the air even more challenging in the new decade. Some of their current tools for pressuring industry are only available to regions that are out of compliance. But if pollution went up again after they were in compliance, they would have to wait for whoever is leading the EPA at the time to declare the region out of compliance again.

Advocates complain that the county doesn’t investigative air quality complaints from the popular Smell PGH app. Kelly said the health department collects lots of data that it doesn’t yet have the ability to analyze and would welcome the data skills of someone like a Google engineer who could help them put that data to use.

The department announced in January that it is again increasing its staffing, and Kelly said the public can expect the pace of its enforcement, now at its highest level ever, will only increase.

"We're in motion now,” he said. "And I want to say that we're picking up speed."

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

This story was fact-checked by Juliette Rihl.

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