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Allegheny County's air pollution advisers ignored by leaders in formulating rules

| Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012, 7:23 a.m.

As Allegheny County leaders considered one of their most important air pollution decisions of the decade, they consulted a special task force of more than 20 experts for help.

They did not consult the county's official air pollution advisers.

The county's move to update its 24-year-old policy for hazardous air emissions underscores the dwindling importance of its Air Pollution Control Advisory Committee, members and others say.

The group, which the county has staffed since at least the 1980s, allows a maximum of 19 members. It's down to seven voting members as county officials left vacancies unfilled, county health officials said. It had 11 members in 2003, one official said.

“Now the committee is of very little value. Even if we had the time, I think the current state of this committee makes it rather worthless,” said member Walter Goldburg, a physics professor and board member of the Group Against Smog and Pollution. “The committee really should be brought up to its full strength so that what we say and what we argue has some weight.”

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald intends to fill all board vacancies but had to prioritize among more than 100 openings, some of which prevented quorums on other boards, his spokeswoman Amie Downs said.

County leaders said they created a separate, special task force to hash out policy for toxic air pollutants because it needed a bigger, broader group that could meet more often. When they bypassed their official advisers on a proposed policy, several committee members became frustrated.

Committee members, unpaid volunteers who meet every other month, voted last week on whether to recommend the new air rules — health officials didn't ask them to; they did so on their own — and the vote was 5-1 against. Some members had legal and technical objections to the proposal, but some voted against it — and Goldburg abstained — because they object to the county's bypassing them.

“It was a vote to say, ‘Hey, we think we should have seen this,'” said Michael Hohman, a former U.S. Steel employee who is an engineering consultant with MK Technologies Inc.

Having the committee weigh in would have added as little as a month to a process that has taken more than two years, Hohman said. The committee could have had a special meeting one month to start reviewing the proposal and voted at its regular meeting the next month, he said.

Instead, county officials introduced the proposal in early July and began a 30-day public comment period that ended the day before the committee's most recent meeting.

Current and former county health officials said Dan Onorato's administration let the committee dwindle by attrition. Most of the voting members are industry consultants or lawyers, with one former mayor and Goldburg from the environmental community.

Onorato could not be reached for comment.

A spokeswoman at the National Association of County & City Health Officials said advisory boards vary greatly nationwide and there are no “hard and fast rules” about how to run them or use them.

Jim Thompson, manager of Allegheny County's Air Quality Program and a nonvoting committee member, has recommended that the committee add members. County officials consulted the committee when they first considered an air toxics policy update in 2009, but the committee split, 3-3. Board of Health officials cut the committee out this time after deciding they needed a bigger group to help develop consensus, he said.

“I guess they were bypassed, but it was done with everyone's eyes wide open,” Thompson said.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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