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Rule fight key to meeting air-quality standard

| Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Allegheny County health officials believe efforts to upgrade U.S. Steel Corp.'s Clairton Coke Works are enough to meet federal air quality standards if a federal court upholds a rule to reduce fine particulates that drift into Pennsylvania.

An 84-page draft report from the county Health Department released Wednesday said the Liberty-Clairton area could comply with short-term pollution standards by 2014 with help from the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule — an Environmental Protection Agency plan that a U.S. appellate court struck down in August. Another appeal is under way.

“At this point, our best estimate is that it will be upheld,” said Jim Thompson, the county's Air Program Manager.

The county plans to ask its health board at its January meeting to approve a public hearing and comment period on the draft report.

The board this month adopted more stringent air toxics guidelines that also are intended to reduce industrial air pollutants but are unrelated to the particulates plan.

As much as 70 percent of the region's fine particulate matter pollution comes from coal-fired plants in Ohio and other Midwestern states, Thompson said.

Reducing that amount is imperative to attaining compliance with 24-hour maximums of 35 micrograms per cubic meter, he said.

Current short-term levels are about 44 micrograms per cubic meter, he said.

The area has seen reduced air pollution in recent years, Thompson said, partly by shutting three industrial plants in West Mifflin and McKeesport.

Major changes at U.S. Steel's Clairton plant have proven instrumental, he said. That plant is the largest source of particulates in the Liberty-Clairton area, which the federal government says faces the highest levels of cancer because of air pollution in the nation.

U.S. Steel did not respond to a request for comment.

The company shut three batteries of coke ovens in 2009 and is implementing a $500 million improvement project, which includes a new battery and quench towers to cool emissions.

“There has been a tremendous amount that has gone on locally,” Thompson said.

In March, the area around the plant for the first time met the federal annual air pollution level of 15 micrograms per cubic meter, set in 1996.

Local environmental groups lauded the county and local companies for their work. Yet questions remain as to whether attainment can be reached and sustained with the proposed plan.

“Twenty years ago, I'm not sure we could have envisioned talking about attaining a level of 35 micrograms. So clearly, we are making huge progress,” said Joe Osborne, legal director of Garfield-based Group Against Smog and Pollution, or GASP.

The county's figures show that particulate levels could be reduced to between 34 and 36 micrograms with the federal rule that remains in limbo. New federal standards expected this month could reduce the limit further to 30 micrograms, Osborne said.

Tom Hoffman, the Western Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action, said air-quality improvements in the Clairton area are needed and he worries that the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule is in jeopardy.

Some reductions in cross-state air pollution have occurred as coal-powered plants to the west have either closed or invested in enhanced pollution controls, such as air scrubbers, Thompson said.

“They're having an impact,” he said, “but we need the full impact of the rule to reach attainment.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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