Publishing note: This article was supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership. It is the first in a series on pollution and misinformation in Greater Pittsburgh from a consortium of outlets, including Allegheny Front, Ambridge Connection, The Incline, Mon Valley Independent, Pittsburgh City Paper, Pittsburgh Independent and Pittsburgh Union Progress. Stay tuned for more.
There’s no denying that air quality in Allegheny County has improved in the last decade, but just how much, and who is responsible for it, is open to debate.
Most improvements are due to the closure of old, outdated coal-processing facilities, like the Shenango Coke Works on Neville Island, in 2016.
In addition to economic factors, the plant closed after grassroots groups like Allegheny County Clean Air Now pressured the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] to crack down on excessive pollution, after years of Allegheny County Health Department [ACHD] inaction.
“ACHD was not cracking down [on Shenango] until EPA Region 3 Administrator Shawn Garvin and the EPA Region 3 enforcement team literally came to Pittsburgh to witness and then call for ending the egregious pollution at Shenango,” says Matt Mehalik, Ph.D., executive director of Western Pennsylvania’s Breathe Project, a nonprofit that advocates for cleaner air.
“ACHD had the authority to act, but was not moving on the matter effectively, despite having all of the same evidence provided EPA Region 3.”
Most of Allegheny County’s negative health outcomes come from microscopic pieces of particulate matter known as PM2.5: this fine soot, generated locally by US Steel facilities in Clairton and Braddock, the Cheswick power plant, and other facilities, is so small that when it’s inhaled it can bypass the body’s natural defense system, penetrate deep into the lungs and can even enter the bloodstream directly.
PM2.5 has decreased by about half in the last 10 years, allowing Allegheny County, for the first time ever, to meet the federal Clean Air Act. (Particulate matter is one of six “Criteria Air Pollutants” for which federal air quality standards exist.)
These reductions are significant, but “better” air doesn’t necessarily mean “healthy” air.
Two weeks ago, history repeated itself: according to a report from the Pittsburgh Business Times, “the Southwest PA Resident-Led Air Quality Town Hall, along with 500 others, [sent] a letter last month to EPA Region 3 Administrator Adam Ortiz urging him to visit the Pittsburgh region to see the impact of emissions of particulate matter, known as PM2.5.”
The organization wrote in advance of the EPA’s proposal “to strengthen Air Quality Standards to Protect the Public from Harmful Effects of Soot,” a move that will very likely relegate Allegheny County out of compliance once more. (A motion urging the EPA to strengthen its PM2.5 standard passed Allegheny County Council March 21 by a 11-0 vote, with 1 abstention.)
“There’s a reason why Allegheny County is in the top 1% of counties in the country for cancer risk from point-source air pollution,” says Mehalik.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald prefers a glass half-full approach:
“The best air quality that we’ve ever seen,” said Fitzgerald, in a wide-ranging, January 5 interview on WESA’s The Confluence, reflecting upon his three terms as county executive.
“It continues to improve, and as I mentioned […] 12 years later, we’ve reduced Hazardous Air Pollutants by 80% in Allegheny County. If we reduced poverty by 80%, murder rates by 80%, dropout rates by 80%, traffic times by 80%, we’d be holding parades.”
Very few casual listeners know that ‘Hazardous Air Pollutants’ (or HAPs) is a specific class of chemicals, not a catch-all term for air pollutants generally.
The claim prompted Mehalik to write to The Confluence: “If these statements are left unchallenged, our region’s constituents will be misled on the key public health matter of air quality.”
In the interview, Gavin pushed back on Fitzgerald’s claim by challenging him on continuing negative health outcomes, especially in the Mon Valley.
Gavin did not respond directly to Mehalik’s email, but 13 days after Fitzgerald’s interview, the Confluence presented a segment on the health risks of PM2.5.
The danger of PM2.5 was Mehalik’s biggest concern: particulate matter is not considered a “Hazardous Air Pollutant.” That means Fitzgerald’s claim of an 80% reduction in HAPs excludes the greatest risk to local health.
Asked to cite Fitzgerald’s specific claim, county spokesperson Amie Downs said the source was the health department, and that “Allegheny County industries are putting out 1/8 the sulfur dioxide, 1/2 the fine particulates, and 1/5 the hazardous air pollutants as compared to 12 years ago.”
Downs would not expand on Fitzgerald’s definition of “hazardous air pollutant” nor would they release a spreadsheet with the latest HAP emissions.
Previously, the health department published this self-reported industry data in an annual “point source emissions inventory report.”
These annual reports were discontinued after 2017 “for a number of operational reasons, some of them related to the pandemic,” said ACHD air quality expert, Marie Kelly.
“Later this year we will post a spreadsheet providing total emissions for criteria and HAP emissions for the facilities reporting emissions in the 2021 and 2022 inventories.”
Until then, it’s difficult to dissect Fitzgerald’s specific claim of an 80% reduction any further.
“If you’re going to talk about countywide trends in emissions data, there should be an easy way for people to get countywide emission data to see where reductions occurred and why,” said Kevin Stewart, Director of Environmental Health at American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic.
Fitzgerald went on to make the same claim on Twitter four days after his radio interview. The claim was also included in a January 11 Allegheny County press release [.pdf] praising former ACHD director, Dr. Debra Bogen’s promotion to PA Secretary of Health. (Bogen was brought on as director in early 2020.)
“It’s really disingenuous for any leader to cherry-pick a statistic to make things sound like they’re OK while there are clear health risks happening in the community,” said Mehalik.
“In some ways, it’s ignoring risks to people’s health, and that is poor leadership.”
He is a 2x 2023 Western PA Press Club Golden Quill award winner, in feature and business reporting. And a 3x finalist in the investigative reporting category.
He is a 2018 first prize winner in environmental reporting from the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for reporting on lead in Pittsburgh’s drinking water.
In 2022 and 2021, he was awarded a grant from The Gumshoe Group to support his investigative reporting.