Update (3/22/23): The Allegheny County Board of Health voted to advance the proposal to tap the Clean Air Fund for more support for the Air Quality Program to an extended public comment phase. Public comment will be followed by another consideration by the Air Pollution Control Advisory Committee.

During the meeting, numerous environmental advocacy organizations, including the Breathe Project, the Group Against Smog and Pollution [GASP], Valley Clean Air Now, Clean Air Council and PennEnvironment spoke in opposition to the proposal. 

Reported 3/20/23: The Allegheny County Health Department’s Air Quality Program is seeking unprecedented access to the Clean Air Fund, a coffer of nearly $10 million earmarked largely for community-based projects that address Allegheny County’s chronic air quality issues.

During a special meeting of the Air Pollution Control Advisory Committee on March 13, County Manager Jennifer Liptak painted an urgent portrait of a department experiencing fiscal turbulence.

“If we continue down this road, we’re going to continue to have a deficit until we figure out how to make this program more efficient,” she said.

The meeting was the ninth in a lengthy and contentious debate over a proposal to increase the portion of the fund that the Air Quality Program may use for its operating expenses. The program, which oversees monitoring and enforcement of air pollution regulations, has been allowed to use up to 5% of the Clean Air Fund balance to pay for its operations. Now the department seeks a five-fold bump — up to 25% — of monies that could otherwise be used to fund community projects.

Over the past several months, the committee expressed doubts about the proposal, with many members questioning whether the move is an appropriate use of funds, and whether it is financially justified. 

“The substantial change should not be taken lightly,” said Mark Jeffrey, U.S. Steel’s representative on the committee, on March 13. “At the end of the day, we want the money to go back to communities. We want to improve air quality in Allegheny County. And this is going to take a dent out of it one way or the other.”

A motion to send the proposal to the Board of Health passed the committee by an 8-4 vote. The board on Wednesday will decide whether to send the proposal to the next stage: public comment. The board shot down a previous iteration of the proposal in January, which was brought to a vote without the committee’s blessing. 

The latest push adds to the debate over who should have access to the fund and for what purposes. The process also raises questions of how to appropriately support a county air program with dwindling revenue that is struggling to stay in the black.

After PublicSource inquiries, County Controller Corey O’Connor pledged to audit the Clean Air Fund this year, saying that had not been previously done.

Changing the Clean Air Fund? 

The Clean Air Fund contains nearly $10 million in fines and penalties paid by polluters in Allegheny County, and it continues to receive money each year as violations persist. 

Per county law, the fund 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.” As is, the Air Quality Program may draw up to 5% of the fund balance each year for operating costs.

The Air Quality Program is made up of about 45 engineers, analysts and inspectors, and is responsible for monitoring air pollution in Allegheny County, permitting for major polluters and enforcing air quality regulations.

Under the new proposal, the Air Quality Program’s slice of pollution-penalty pie would grow five times to 25% of the Clean Air Fund’s balance, with an annual cap of $1.25 million and a clause that says the stopgap measure would sunset after four years. After that, the Air Quality Program would again be limited to drawing 5% of the Clean Air Fund. 

The Air Quality Program has drawn the full 5% from the fund to cover operating expenses per the regulation each year since at least 2016 — typically around $500,000 to $600,000.

Since 2019, the program received nearly $2.1 million from the Clean Air Fund for operating expenses, 44% of the total Clean Air Fund expenditures, according to data from the county controller’s office. 

The Health Department also used $70,065 in Clean Air Fund dollars to cover temporary staffing expenses, and $121,290 for air quality permitting and enforcement software, according to contracts. In 2017, $500,000 was transferred from the Clean Air Fund to pay for renovations for a Health Department building in Lawrenceville. 

A precarious Air Quality Program

Financials show 2023 as an inflection point: The Air Quality Program faces a projected $760,000 deficit this year. Liptak, along with acting Health Department Director Patrick Dowd and Deputy of Environmental Health Geoff Rabinowitz, said the proposal to draw more from the Clean Air Fund is a way to cover the difference, and would be a stopgap measure as the program seeks to hire a full staff and figure out how to right the ship.

“The program has to be functional,” Rabinowitz told the Air Pollution Control Advisory Committee at a meeting in January. “This is not a situation that is tenable in perpetuity.

“There is a sense of urgency here, and I hope you hear that in my voice.”

From the county’s perspective, the Clean Air Fund is a viable and available avenue to keep the Air Quality Program functional without dipping into the county’s general fund, which was used to cover a $481,000 deficit in 2022. “That’s not good,” said Liptak.

“The general fund is the property tax dollars for the citizens of Allegheny County,” she said. “That’s the last resort.”

The Air Quality Program does not usually rely on the county general fund to finance its staff like many other departments do. Instead, the program has historically relied on grant funding and a variety of fees collected from industrial emitters.

The closure of large industrial facilities like the Shenango Coke Works on Neville Island in 2016 and the Cheswick Generating Station in 2022 were by all accounts boosts to the county’s air quality, but the facilities were also longtime sources of revenue for the Air Quality Program. 

EPA grants have also been unreliable, said Rabinowitz. In addition, U.S. Steel is currently appealing $6.4 million in penalties, and those funds are held in an escrow account until litigation is resolved. A portion of those funds, if secured, would help to replenish the Clean Air Fund, Liptak said.

Diverting money meant for communities?

The Clean Air Fund is “meant to be utilized predominantly for supporting educational programs or direct projects that reduce air quality emission or improve air quality in fenceline environmental justice communities,” said Steve Hvozdovich, a committee member and state campaigns director for Clean Water Action. “That's not how that's going to be utilized over the course of these next four years of this process if this is adopted.”

Under the new proposal, the Clean Air Fund could be drained by the time the new regulation phases out, Hvozdovich said. 

“If you do the math,” he said, based on the county manager’s projection, “you're going to drain the Clean Air Fund by the end of 2026 by 75%. I'd be fine with that if the bulk of that was going to the community. But it's not. It's being split essentially almost evenly between the operating expenses of the Air Quality Program and the public. And I just don't think that's the right use of those funds.”

O’Connor, the county’s independent fiscal watchdog, questioned whether a regulation change that spans four years is the right path, particularly given the opportunity for a new county executive to have a hand in deciding the funding future of the program, once elected. 

O’Connor suggested that the Health Department consider increasing fines for polluters to bolster the budget, or resort to the county general fund to cover personnel.

“If this is a one-time hit just to get through for a couple of months, that's a different conversation than a four-year plan,” he said. “If you look at a four-year long-term plan, the fund is going to be dwindling. The money is supposed to go towards communities that want to use this fund for environmental purposes."

Questions of accessibility and proper use of funds

Thaddeus Popovich, who co-founded Allegheny County Clean Air Now [ACCAN] in 2014, addressed the committee, ACHD leadership and the county manager last week. 

“Since 2020, ACCAN has been asking the department to conduct a comprehensive air toxics and odor study in the Neville Island area, like the one they did in the Mon Valley,” he said. “The study would provide important information that could help the Health Department to better regulate industries in this airshed, which could better protect the health of residents in our communities.”

Miles away in Clairton, Valley Clean Air Now [VCAN] has for years attempted to access the fund to purchase home air filters for residents, with no success.

“There was no way to apply to the fund,” said Myron Arnowitt, who led efforts to secure air filter funding for VCAN. “And there still isn’t.”

The department is supposed to issue requests for proposals [RFPs] for Clean Air Fund funding, but community groups like VCAN and ACCAN say those are few and far between, with no opportunities to access funding in the interim. 

The county manager projected that $2 million in Clean Air Fund money will be spent on projects this year — more than what was spent on projects from the fund across the last three years combined — followed by $1 million for each year through 2027. 

But the Health Department hasn’t issued an RFP “in ages,” Hvozdovich said. 

The Health Department did not respond by deadline to PublicSource’s request for information on the timing of any recent RFPs for Clean Air Fund allocations. The department has yet to announce criteria for the $2 million the manager projected would soon be up for grabs.

“Why are we not spending the money every year?” O’Connor questioned. The fund has carried a balance roughly between $10 million and $12 million since 2016. “These are capital expenditures that we can be spending with community groups.” 

Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at PublicSource and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at quinn@publicsource.org and on Twitter and Instagram @quinnglabicki.

This story was fact-checked by Dakota Castro-Jarrett.

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Quinn Glabicki

Quinn Glabicki is a writer and photographer covering climate and environment for PublicSource. He is also a Report for America corps member. Quinn uses visual and written mediums to tell stories about...