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Air Quality Collaborative gathers steam in Pittsburgh region

| Friday, May 20, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
The air monitors being used by the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) to send data to a map on air quality levels throughout the Pittsburgh region are shown outside of the group's Regent Square headquarters on Thursday, May 19, 2016.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Joe McMahon (left) and Kirsten Nichols (right), both 21, show the air monitors being used by the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) to send data to a map on air quality levels throughout the Pittsburgh region. The GASP interns are shown outside of the group's Regent Square headquarters on Thursday, May 19, 2016.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Jessica Tedrow, education and Events Coordinator for GASP sets the air monitors and GPS units being used by the Group Against Smog and Pollution to send data to a map on air quality levels throughout the Pittsburgh region on Thursday, May 19, 2016.

Intent on protecting students from excessive exposure to exhaust fumes, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed a new air-quality law in 2009: Diesel-powered school buses may not idle for more than five minutes in a 60-minute period.

But by late 2014, a cluster of Western Pennsylvania nonprofits maintained that as many as one-third of diesel buses serving Pittsburgh schools were breaking the rule, and practically no schools had posted required idling signage.

The loosely organized coalition launched an anti-idling campaign, pressuring school officials, lawmakers and transportation vendors to take the law seriously.

Now, the nonprofit cluster says, compliance is up and signs at nearly every Pittsburgh Public Schools campus remind drivers to limit idling.

It's a small victory that exemplifies the unified power two dozen nonprofits want to harness by forming a new regional group, the Air Quality Collaborative.

“We all of a sudden have been multiplied and have more support at the table,” said Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, a member of the collaborative and executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment, an East Liberty-based nonprofit with one part-time and two full-time employees.

The Air Quality Collaborative, spawned by The Heinz Endowments, has grown strong enough to morph into its own formal body. The Heinz Endowments, which pitched in $50,000 toward the collaborative's formation, began advertising this month for a director to run it.

“It will continue to allow the nonprofit sector to engage on these issues in a very sharp and organized way,” said Andrew McElwaine, the Downtown-based foundation's vice president of sustainability and the environment. “It allows for collaboration across a wide range of nonprofits, research, advocacy, outreach and it essentially allows the organizations to be greater than the sum of the parts.”

The collaborative enables the cluster of nonprofits to formalize partnerships that began five years ago and have a more powerful vehicle to carry out advocacy work.

“I think it can make a real difference in moving the clean air agenda higher up on our priority list as a region,” said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania director for Clean Water Action, a collaborative participant.

As an informal body, the nonprofit cluster convened four or five times a year and cooperated on events, press releases and community outreach. They shared resources and assigned roles based on a particular nonprofit's area of expertise.

“We would pool all of our resources together,” Naccarati-Chapkis said.

They developed the Open Window Award, a shaming moniker announced on the first day of spring to call out industrial polluters the group believes are not doing enough to lessen negative impacts on local air quality.

Members include environmental advocates such as PennFuture and the Group Against Smog and Pollution, as well as those focused more broadly on public health and community improvement.

“Right now, it's a lot of individual local activists as far as I can tell,” said Adam Rossi, vice president of Adam Solar Resources, a solar panel installation company in Bridgeville, who lauded the formation of the collaborative. “Having that regional hub, something with money and power behind it to actually be a voice, they can do an ad campaign, they can buy 20 billboards.”

The collaborative will operate initially under the auspices of Community Foundation of the Alleghenies, a Johnstown-based community foundation serving Bedford, Cambria, Somerset and Indiana counties. Members will decide whether to file for independent 501(c)(3) tax status, McElwaine said.

The plan is for The Heinz Endowments to fund the full-time salaries of the collaborative's director and communications manager for two years.

The group of environmentally minded nonprofits began meeting quietly about five years ago, shortly after The Heinz Endowments created The Breathe Project, which commissions science-based research about the region's air quality and sources of persistent pollution.

High levels of soot and smog put people at risk for lung cancer, asthma attacks and other serious ailments, with the American Lung Association ranking greater Pittsburgh as among the unhealthiest in the country.

Others point to significant progress in reducing pollution across Western Pennsylvania, including county-imposed penalties that spurred tens of millions of dollars in improvements in places such as U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works in Clairton.

“We have seen pretty big reductions in the air pollution over the past 10 or so years,” said Kevin Sunday, spokesman for Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. “We just want to be honest about the progress we've made and the cost of doing some of the more extreme policy proposals, like keeping all fossil fuel in the ground or abandoning our nuclear fleet.”

Sunday added that he has no qualms about a regional group of nonprofits rallying around the air-quality cause: “The more we have dialogue about our energy and our environmental needs, the better.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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