Breathe easier: More air quality regulations needed

By Brian Gentry, Contributing Editor

Sonia Kowal thought the sky was orange for the first few years of her life.

She grew up near a Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation plant that filled the air in her neighborhood with metal dust, particulate matter and other toxic pollutants.

Kowal is now 44 years old and lives in Emsworth, a suburb of Pittsburgh fewer than 10 miles down the Ohio River. She has what she calls a “bad neighbor” — Metalico, a company that shreds and melts down iron to reclaim it. It consistently releases the acrid smell of burning plastic and shreds engines still containing gasoline, causing explosions that shake her house.

“My neighbor has two little girls, and when [Metalico] starts doing this early in the morning, she has to take her girls inside,” she said.

Kowal’s situation demonstrates the importance of air quality regulations. Even with them, she still experiences bad air quality daily, something that can have devastating impacts on health over long periods of time, including reduced lung function, cardiovascular issues and neurological deficits.

This is why efforts to dismantle federal air quality regulations are so terrifying to so many people. With little hope that the Trump administration will cease its war on the environment, it falls on state and local authorities — and individuals — to enforce these air quality regulations so that residents can breathe.

The United States has suffered in the past without regulations. Prior to the concerted efforts in the mid-20th century to control pollution, the air in major U.S. cities was so consistently smoggy that residents could hardly breathe. Pittsburgh was once famous for its pitch-black skies in the middle of the day.

While regular citizens were responsible for some of the pollution — damaged cars were sometimes left to rust in rivers — it was primarily industrial pollution that impacted public health. Billowing smoke from coal stacks and uncontrolled emissions of toxic chemicals made it dangerous to breathe.

It wasn’t until the Clean Air Act of 1963 and its subsequent revisions and expansions in 1970 and 1990 that the United States truly had any sort of air quality regulation. Since the most recent amendment in 1990, emissions of six criteria pollutants have declined an average of 54 percent.

As a result, the United States has seen a drastic improvement in public health. Rates of hospitalization and death due to asthma have declined by roughly 50 percent since 1980 and the EPA predicts the 1990 revision will prevent hundreds of thousands of premature deaths and tens of millions of sick days by 2020.

Despite all of this important progress, the Trump administration seems determined to undermine any health benefits gained. Since the start of his presidency in 2016, Trump has overturned six laws that regulate pollution issues from methane to general toxic pollutants. And the administration is in the process of rolling back even more — most recently, the administration is considering loosening an Obama-era law that reduced mercury emissions from power plants.

This is dangerous — even today, companies still struggle to meet air quality standards. Just this summer, the Allegheny County Health Department fined U.S. Steel $1 million for its illegally high particulate matter emissions at Clairton Coke Works, the largest coke factory in the country. Coke is a pure form of carbon that provides the intense heat and chemical reactants needed to manufacture steel.

And Pittsburgh air is still notoriously bad. Allegheny County is one of nine areas across the country that still hasn’t met the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for small particulate matter, and the region consistently has high levels of hazardous air pollutants like benzene, lead, hexavalent chromium and other toxic substances.

Federal deregulation would have sinister effects on the people of Allegheny County. The region is already in the top two percent of counties at risk of cancer from air pollution and this deregulation would only worsen the situation. But with the Trump administration set on complete deregulation, it seems nearly hopeless for any change at the federal level — so it falls on local authorities to adequately protect the people.

In Pittsburgh, this means that the ACHD needs to be strict in enforcing the current standards and picking up any slack in regulation that the federal government gives.

It’s promising that the ACHD has demonstrated a commitment to protecting Allegheny County’s air. The recent fine levied against U.S. Steel was the second largest in the last 10 years, and the department continues to monitor poor air quality in problem areas near the “Toxic Ten,” 10 companies around Pittsburgh notorious for exorbitant pollution.

Residents can also help greatly with improving air quality. Community-created resources, like the Breathe Project based in Pittsburgh, offer a chance for concerned citizens to keep up with the most recent air quality news. And apps like Smell Pittsburgh, created by a lab at CMU, allow for reporting air quality issues and sharing the information with neighbors.

Like many residents of Allegheny County, Kowal sees hope in Pittsburgh’s future. She views the emergence of tech companies and the mass influx of people as positives, things that can help with the revival of Pittsburgh. But at the same time, she knows that Pittsburgh needs to focus on improving its air quality before we can continue.

“I don’t want to see the City revert back to what it was before,” she said.