Whether you’re new to the Pittsburgh region or have lived here your whole life, you probably want to know what’s in the air you’re breathing and where it’s coming from.
The map you see here identifies the facilities that federal standards say are the “major sources” of industrial air pollution in Allegheny County and the amount of pollutants they are allowed to release.
The air permits, issued by the Allegheny County Health Department, were collected by the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), which allowed PublicSource to map and publish the information. (GASP receives funds from The Heinz Endowments, The Pittsburgh Foundation and Colcom Foundation. PublicSource also receives funds from these foundations.)
The permits are publicly available information, but are not easily accessible information, said Jamin Bogi, policy and outreach coordinator with GASP.
“They generally can only be obtained through facility-specific agency file review requests — a time consuming process that may be unknown or intimidating to the general public,” Bogi said.
The region’s improvement since the days of steel mills, when Pittsburgh was referred to as “hell with the lid taken off,” has led many to say that the city and region’s air is far better than they used to be.
But Allegheny County still can’t meet federal standards for air pollution. The county doesn’t meet the annual standard for fine particulate matter, solid material smaller than 2.5 microns that can get into your lungs and bloodstream. (See an EPA map of these areas.)
“These permits allow the public to determine what pollutants they’re being exposed to, what obligations a pollution source is required to meet, how sources demonstrate compliance, and what constitutes a violation,” said Joe Osborne, GASP’s legal director.
“Knowledge is a good thing per se, but by making this information available to the public, it also encourages public participation in the permitting process, and can ensure regulators and source operators are held accountable,” he said.
PublicSource is publishing this information because we believe it is in the public interest.
The Allegheny County Health Department said it is working toward getting these documents, and others related to air quality, on their website soon.
This map shows facilities in Allegheny County with Title V permits. Title V of the Clean Air Act requires “major sources” of industrial air pollution to have operating permits. Allegheny County Health Department controls the permitting process.
A “major source” emits or has the potential to emit at least 100 tons per year of any air pollutant, 10 tons per year of any single Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP) or 25 tons per year of any combination of HAPs.
These permits are intended to help reduce air pollution.
*Notes: Ownership can change more quickly than permits can account for, so many of the permits will list previous owners. The pollutants tables in each slide show a summary of the potential emissions a facility is allowed to emit. This map shows “potential emissions” a facility can emit. To see actual emissions of these plants, see the DEP’s eFACTS website.
You’ll notice some of the permits are expired — a few for more than five years. As long as sources submit a Title V application or renewal application by their submission deadline, the facility can continue to operate. There is no limit on how long a facility can operate under an old permit.
The reasons permits are delayed vary and include litigation, unresolved compliance issues or incorporating modifications to a facility into a permit.
Prior to the re-issuance of a permit, the facility would have to operate under the conditions of the old permit plus any new federal, state, or local rules or regulations that apply and have come into effect since the last permit, according to the county health department.
Double click in the map to zoom in on facilities. Once you zoom in, though, you cannot zoom back out on that slide. PublicSource is working on adding more user-friendly zoom features.
If you live in an area and want to be watchful about the air, here are some options to take action:
- If you witness an air quality violation — maybe you see heavy smoke or smell bad odors that aren’t typically there — you can report it to the Allegheny County Health Department. Call (412) 687-ACHD (2243) or click here to report an incident.
- Many of these permits are up for renewal in the next year or two. After reviewing a company’s air-quality permit, you may want to provide input during the permitting process, which could result in a change. Here’s an EPA guide to participating in the process.
- For questions on air quality issues you can also reach out to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection at 412-442-4184, GASP at 412-924-0604 or info[at]gasp-pgh[dot]org.
- You can also reach out to your local representatives to tell them what you think about air quality in our region. Click here for a list of Pittsburgh city council members by district or click here for a list of Allegheny County council members by district.
Pollutant: Particulate matter
What it is: Mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air that can be composed of many different types of materials. PM 10: Inhalable particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter, found near roadways and dusty industries. PM 2.5: Inhalable particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter; generally found in smoke and haze, emitted from natural sources like forest fires and industrial combustion sources, or formed when gases react in the air.
Health problems shown by studies: Irritation of the airways, coughing, and difficulty breathing, reduced lung function, aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis, irregular heartbeat, nonfatal heart attacks, some cancers.
Pollutant: Carbon Monoxide (CO)
What it is: Colorless, odorless gas emitted from combustion process.
Health problems shown by studies: CO can cause harmful health effects by reducing oxygen delivery to the body’s organs (like the heart and brain) and tissues. At extremely high levels, CO can cause death.
Pollutant: Nitrogen Oxide (NOx)
What it is: Nitrogen oxides come from various sources, including emissions from cars, trucks and buses, power plants, off-road equipment, and agricultural sources. Nitrogen oxides includes nitrogen dioxide.
Health problems shown by studies: Nitrogen oxides are linked with adverse effects on the respiratory system and can contribute to adverse respiratory and cardiovascular effects associated with exposure to ozone and fine particles.
Pollutant: VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds)
What it is: Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs are emitted by a variety of products numbering in the thousands. Examples include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions.
Health problems shown by studies: Eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness.
The ability of organic chemicals to cause health effects varies greatly from those that are highly toxic to those with no known health effect. As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of the health effect will depend on many factors including level of exposure and length of time exposed.
Pollutant: Sulfur oxides (SOx)
What it is: Sulfur oxides come from fossil fuel combustion by power plants, large industries, and mobile
sources, and from some industrial processes. Sulfur oxides include sulfur dioxide (SO2).
Health problems shown by studies: Sulfur oxides are linked with adverse effects on the respiratory
system and can contriubute to adverse respiratory and cardiovascular effects associated with exposure to ozone and fine particles.
Pollutant: Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs)
What it is: EPA is required to control 187 hazardous air pollutants. See the EPA’s list of HAPS: http://www.epa.gov/airtoxics/188polls.html
Health problems shown by studies: Hazardous air pollutants, also known as toxic air pollutants or air toxics, are those pollutants that cause or may cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects, or adverse environmental and ecological effects.
What it is: Benzene is found in the air from emissions from burning coal and oil, gasoline service stations, and motor vehicle exhaust.
Health problems shown by studies: Acute (short-term) inhalation exposure of humans to benzene may cause drowsiness, dizziness, headaches, as well as eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritation, and, at high levels, unconsciousness. Chronic (long-term) inhalation exposure has caused various disorders in the blood, including reduced numbers of red blood cells and aplastic anemia, in occupational settings. Reproductive effects have been reported for women exposed by inhalation to high levels, and adverse effects on the developing fetus have been observed in animal tests. Increased incidence of leukemia (cancer of the tissues that form white blood cells) have been observed in humans occupationally exposed to benzene. EPA has classified benzene as known human carcinogen for all routes of exposure.
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