September 28, 2020

PennFuture Op Ed in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Making clean air a priority in Pittsburgh

Each Pennsylvanian has a constitutional right to breathe clean air, even if that right isn’t always protected by our local and state leaders.

Locally, communities in the Mon Valley and across Allegheny County have suffered far too much, for far too long, from air pollution with little and inadequate response from county officials or industry.

That’s why hundreds of county residents and a coalition of local environmental and community organizations banded together last week for a Toxic Ten Week of Action to call on Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald to clean up the region’s air.

We started this grassroots activism Sept. 14, and on that same night, U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock spewed out a thick black plume of smoke. This latest pollution event, concerning even by U.S. Steel’s usual standards, was just the latest reminder of why we are still fighting for clean air in the first place.

There are other concerning reminders.

Allegheny County ranks in the worst 2% of counties in the United States for cancer risk from air pollution, while some Allegheny County school districts have childhood asthma rates that are more than double the state average.

To be sure, Pittsburgh has come a long way from “Hell with the lid off,” and county officials as well as the Allegheny County Health Department have made strides recently by increasing air quality enforcement and reducing the air quality permit backlog.

But we can do better than this, and there’s no excuse for inadequate responses from our elected officials, especially while we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic brought on by a virus that is proven to be more deadly in areas of higher air pollution.

Over the course of just five days, concerned community members made 100 phone calls to the county executive’s office in a single day and generated hundreds more emails and social media posts.

These aren’t just faceless names. These are people who wake up and go to bed each day with the same problems as the day before, people who are tired of asking for action and are instead demanding it.

Specifically, community members called on the county executive to:

• Better communicate with front-line community members;

• Implement stronger county coke oven regulations, which will result in less air pollution from the Clairton Coke Works;

• Seek meaningful penalties for pollution in addition to requiring polluters to fix the problem rather than just paying a fine;

• Increase funding for the county’s Air Quality Program so that it has the resources to do its job; and

• Ensure all of Allegheny County’s biggest polluters have up-to-date Clean Air Act operating permits with health-protective emission limits.

Residents in these front-line communities and across the region are not going away and will not be silent until clean air becomes a priority for our elected officials, and a reality for everyone living in Western Pennsylvania.We have the tools at our disposal to ensure everyone breathes clean air. Now more than ever it’s crucial to make sure residents in these front-line communities are having their voices heard.