Pittsburgh is becoming greener and greener everyday. With bike routes making increased appearances around the city — including a proposal for a bike path connecting North Oakland and the Strip District — and with some of the country’s most environmentally sustainable buildings dotting the skyline, the Steel City appears to be an epicenter for ecological progress.
But there is still an age-old, invisible threat that continues to undermine Pittsburgh’s environmental progress — the little black rock known as coal.
Coal has been making national headlines as of late, considering the Obama administration’s announcement earlier this week of first-ever federal controls on coal-fired power plants, which will dramatically limit the amount of carbon emissions they are allowed to produce.
The announcement is good news for Pittsburgh — even though you can’t find the stuff burning within city limits, Pittsburghers experience the aftereffects of the coal burning process everyday.
Dozens of coal-fired power plants surround Pittsburgh and, because the city is located within the Allegheny River Valley, Pittsburgh residents are vulnerable to the foreign pollutants spewed by the plants. The pollutants travel down and collect within the valley.
Because of coal, Pittsburgh is currently ranked sixth in year-round particle pollution among U.S. cities by the American Lung Association, leading to 88,000 cases of chronic bronchitis within the Pittsburgh-New Castle area and 47,000 diagnoses of asthma among local children, not to mention the exacerbation of heart and lung disease it has caused.
What is frustrating is that there is little to nothing Pittsburgh residents themselves can do to stop this. We can push for more bike lanes and we can carpool to work, but we can’t move our city away from the toxic clouds coming towards us. We can’t physically keep these clouds of soot from entering the city, either — unless we constructed a giant fan to simply blow the unwanted air pollution away.
Thankfully for us, if the federal controls proposed by the Obama administration are able to pass through Congress, a giant fan won’t be necessary.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the curbs on coal emissions will reduce airborne particle emissions by more than 25 percent, which will have the potential to provide up to $93 billion in climate and public health benefits — benefits that will include the reduction of asthma and lung disease diagnoses in Pittsburgh.
Consequently, Pittsburgh may one day be able to have its air quality match the standard of its residents’ green desires.
In the meantime, although we can’t do anything physically to stop the air pollution from accumulating, we can put pressure on our representatives to allow the proposed initiative to pass through Congress.
Then we will see if the voice of big coal continues to overshadow the voice of the Steel City.