A recent audit on the Allegheny County Health Department [ACHD] by the county controller said the agency’s reliance on settlements and its hesitancy to impose maximum fines equates to a slap on the wrist for major industrial polluters.

The audit, conducted by Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, concludes that ACHD has overused consent decrees — agreements that solve disputes between two parties, resulting in a guiltless settlement.

“This audit proves what we already know: The Allegheny County Health Department has created a situation where polluters see incremental fines as the cost of doing business,” said George Jugovic, chief counsel for PennFuture.

Wagner’s review notes that consent agreements set specific amounts for fines, and it doesn’t increase with repeated offenses. The controller writes that the health department should seek the maximum daily penalties against offenders — up to $25,000 under state law.

The audit also states that the health department’s legal staff is too small. This is important because, the audit asserts, an adequate legal team could pursue litigation and create a deterrent to companies that aren’t reducing toxic emissions.

In its response to the audit, ACHD mentioned the criteria it uses to determine pollution penalties, including the willfulness of the violation, the potential harm it poses and the economic benefit gained by the company for not complying. It could assess the maximum fine if all factors were at their worst.

From a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article on the audit:

Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Health Department, said the department was surprised and disappointed by Wagner’s statements, which “reflect a poor understanding of the processes and procedures for regulating air pollution.”

“The Air Quality Program has held major polluters accountable,” Hacker wrote. “It has been an extremely successful tool for improving air quality in our county.”

Last month, The American Lung Association [ALA] released its 2016 State of the Air report, revealing the degree to which air pollution still plagues post-industrial Pittsburgh.

PublicSource reported on the findings related to Allegheny County:

Allegheny County received an F for air quality overall. The ALA noted 39 days of the highest level of ozone pollution — the “orange level” — and 18 days of the highest level particle pollution. …

Allegheny County ranks 12th in the list of 25 counties with the most prevalent year-round particle pollution. Counties in California, including Riverside and San Joaquin, fill the first ten spots on that list. Despite the failing grades, the report also notes that Pittsburgh reached its “best ever” low for particle pollution this year, improving from the 2015 report in both categories of particle pollution.

The ALA also stated that nearly 200,000 adults suffer from asthma or cardiovascular disease.

According to a PennFuture press release, Thaddeus Popovich of Allegheny County Clean Air Now added today that:

“Nearly 29 percent of fifth-graders in a Pittsburgh study have asthma, which is connected to air quality. For the sake of our children, the Allegheny County Health Department needs to hold polluters accountable to the health of the communities they operate in.”

Reach Courtney Linder at clinder@publicsource.org. Follow her on Twitter @CNL_13.

Know more than you did before? Support this work with a MATCHED gift!

Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!

Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.

However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.

Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.