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Allegheny County businesses leery of new pollution policy

| Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, 2:22 p.m.

Allegheny County health officials on Wednesday approved a long-awaited overhaul of guidelines to manage toxic air pollution, but drew a warning from County Executive Rich Fitzgerald that part of their plan may not last.

The County Board of Health voted 7-1 for new limits on emissions of mercury, benzene and other heavy metals and acid gases from new and expanding businesses. The policy will take effect in February and require permit applicants to do new estimates of the health risks caused by the air pollution that leaves their property.

Fitzgerald, however, said he would intervene to give industrial businesses more leeway concerning the spot where they estimate that risk. He had helped to design a compromise to allow applicants to judge their risk from farther away — the closest neighboring inhabited building, he said.

The board dismissed that compromise, amending the guidelines to use their original spot, the property boundary.

“I was happy that the guidelines passed,” Fitzgerald said hours after the vote. “There was an amendment put in there that shouldn't be there, and will most likely be taken out at the next meeting (Jan. 4). That was a mistake.”

Health officials had spent seven years trying to update the 1988 air toxics policy. Blaming former County Executive Dan Onorato, they had shelved one plan in 2009.

Donald S. Burke, a board member and dean of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, spent more than two years leading a special committee of health experts, industry officials and consultants, and environmentalists to draft the proposal passed Wednesday.

“This is an important step forward for public health in Allegheny County and it was a great step to pass it,” Burke said. He could not be reached about Fitzgerald's comments.

Industrial leaders complained about the guidelines in the months leading up to the vote, and Fitzgerald helped to delay it once for more time to review comments. But the compromise wouldn't protect homes or buildings that could be developed near a polluter, board member Edith Shapira said as she moved to strike it at the meeting.

Though the revised policy is better than one the board considered in July, businesses still have concerns, Ken Zapinski said on behalf of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.

“We remain concerned that the burden that this policy places on companies to demonstrate that they are in compliance with these redundant regulatory standards will drive jobs and investment out of Allegheny County,” Zapinski said.

Former County Councilwoman Joan Cleary cast the only no vote, saying she supports the guidelines but wanted to keep the compromise.

“That was the compromise born out of the public comment and I thought it would be best,” said Cleary, a nurse.

The meeting drew more than 25 people, including several supporters. Though some companies have economic concerns, the environmental benefits will help other industries — including high-tech companies whose executives asked for the improvements, Burke said.

Several environmentalists and Ben Avon Councilman Michael Bett, whose borough is downwind of Neville Island pollution, asked officials to remove the compromise. It doesn't protect playgrounds and yards where pollution could affect children, they said.

“To have the board change that amendment at the end is such a good sign that they are really committed to considering public health impacts,” said Tom Hoffman, Western Pennsylvania director for Clean Water Action.

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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