Many people have seen those old pictures of Pittsburgh: The air pollution is so thick you can barely make out the skyscrapers Downtown. Smoke billows from old factories, blotting out the sun.
Usually juxtaposed with gleaming current photos of the city, these pictures testify both to the city’s gritty past and how far we’ve come.
Over the past decade, Pittsburgh has seen a lot of growth in environmental friendliness. New developments have been nationally recognized for reducing energy use, water consumption and transportation emissions. There are energy-efficient light bulbs in our streetlights. Formerly vacant lots are being converted into urban gardens. An eco-district planned for Uptown will further reduce the city’s environmental footprint. And earlier this month, Pittsburgh was awarded platinum status by Sustainable Pennsylvania, due in part to its environmental initiatives.
But despite these improvements, Pittsburgh is still very much gritty, and not in the complimentary way that might speak to our edginess, resolve and work ethic. The air we breathe is literally gritty. According to a report released this month by environmental group PennEnvironment, Pittsburgh is still the sootiest city on the East Coast.
“Pittsburgh had the highest number of elevated soot-pollution days in 2015 on the East Coast,” says Adam Garber, deputy director of PennEnvironment. “Soot contributes to asthma attacks, cardiac disease, heart attacks and other respiratory problems. So, on those days, when you go outside, it’s very dangerous to your health to breathe in the air.”
At the federal level, efforts to improve air quality have recently been under attack thanks to President Donald Trump’s administration. In addition to rolling back environmental standards and policies, the administration has proposed a 31 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget.
But environmental activists say there are things local government can do to improve air quality without the assistance of the federal government. Local activists are calling on the Allegheny County Health Department, which is responsible for regulating air pollutants, to do a better job overseeing industrial sources of air pollution, and enforcing the federal pollution standards currently on the books.
“Allegheny County needs to really start enforcing and ratcheting down soot pollution from all the major industries within the county to make sure we’re putting public health first,” says Garber.
According to the report Our Health At Risk, by PennEnvironment’s Research and Policy Center, in 2015 (the most recent year data was available), people in Pittsburgh experienced 220 days with elevated levels of fine-particulate matter.
The current state of our air quality increases the risk of premature death, asthma attacks, lung disease, heart disease, cancer and other adverse health effects. Additionally, a study published in January by Translational Psychiatry, an Australia-based medical journal, found that for older women, breathing polluted air nearly doubles the likelihood of developing dementia.
PennEnvironment’s report also found that Pittsburgh experienced 93 days with elevated smog pollution, ranking third among cities in the northeastern U.S.
“Physicians like myself have observed first-hand the adverse effects of poor air quality on the health of our patients,” wrote Dr. Ned Ketyer, a local pediatrician and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health, in a statement. “Especially the ones among us who are most vulnerable — infants and children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the poor.”
PennEnvironment was one of four groups who last month provided notice that they intend to sue owners of the Allegheny Ludlum steel plant for violating the federal Clean Air Act by releasing pollution greater than the plant’s permit allows.
Another source of contention for local environmental advocates is U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works. According to PennEnvironment, the plant violated its emissions permits 6,700 times between Jan. 1, 2012, and May 31, 2015.
The Allegheny County Health Department is responsible for issuing and enforcing emission limits for industrial air-polluters like Allegheny Ludlum and Clairton Coke Works. As a result of Clairton Coke Works’ violations, the health department reached a consent agreement with U.S. Steel to require operational changes and a $25,000 fine. But PennEnvironment says the health department’s actions don’t go far enough.
“A lot of this pollution comes from coke plants, chemical and metal manufacturing plants, and it’s contributing directly to the poor air quality,” Garber says. “The health department has the ability to both provide stronger enforcement of existing permits and set new permits, especially for those that are operating with outdated permits, to make sure we are reducing this pollution.”
Additionally, according to PennEnvironment, “fourteen major pollution sources in the county are operating without proper Clean Air Act permits or under permits that expired at least 18 months ago.”
“There are facilities that are operating with an outdated or nonexistent clean-air permits, which is a huge problem when it comes to reducing this pollution,” says Garber. “The health department can and should establish strong clean-air permits that will start reducing these unhealthy clean-air days and protecting people’s health.”
County health officials dispute PennEnvironment’s claims; Jim Kelly, deputy director of the county’s bureau for environmental health, calls them “disingenuous.” While permits must be renewed every five years, he says, companies are still held to those emissions levels even after the renewal date.
“Any facility that exists has a permit. All requirements are always in full effect,” says Kelly. “I appreciate [PennEnvironment’s] stance, but we have to operate within a legal framework. When you make a statement like that [about enforcement being lax], it might demonstrate that you don’t know the legal frame.”
According to Kelly, permits don’t really change when they’re renewed because his office is bound by the air-quality laws currently in place. He says his office does everything under its purview to hold companies that affect air quality accountable. But he says that real action to reduce air pollution can happen only with change at the federal and state levels.
“The people you elect to federal and state office, they are the ones who set the federal and local air-quality rules,” Kelly says.
The Group Against Smog and Pollution, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit, is also part of the coalition that filed a notice of intent against Allegheny Ludlum. John Baillie, staff attorney for GASP, says the county can do more to combat air pollution, but he says that’s only part of the problem.
“If [the U.S.] were less reliant on coal for our electricity and more reliant on renewable sources, that would be a tremendous improvement,” Baillie says. “One of the problems for Pittsburgh is that it’s downwind from all the coal-fired power plants in the Midwest and Kentucky, so our air quality suffers as a result of that. Our own sources do their damage, but the air coming into the region is not as clean as it should be either.”
Environmental regulations are currently under attack at the federal level, making it difficult to regulate air pollution in other states. The Trump administration recently instructed the Department of Interior to rewrite air-pollution regulations for oil and gas drilling.
Similarly, Trump’s administration has instructed the EPA to rewrite the Clean Power Plan aimed at targeting emissions of the greenhouse gasses that drive climate change. And last month, the administration agreed to look at rolling back automobile fuel-efficiency standards that were finalized only this past January and which, according to PennEnvironment, were supposed to prevent 6 billion metric tons of global-warming pollution.
PennEnvironment says the recent actions by the Trump administration will only exacerbate health risks associated with poor air quality. The group estimates that changes to the Clean Power Plan alone could lead to 3,600 additional premature deaths, 90,000 more asthma attacks in children, and 300,000 more missed work and school days by 2030.
“As we’ve learned more about the effects of air pollution on human health, we’ve learned that the pollution levels of 100 years ago were absolutely intolerable,” Baillie says. “Although we’re better, we’re still not attaining the national air-quality standards we should.”