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County health department 'driving force' behind cleaner air

| Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013, 8:31 p.m.

Business, community and environmental leaders say they're breathing easier, and they credit the Allegheny County Health Department and U.S. Steel for getting the county to meet federal soot limits for the first time.

The region has a long, smoky history, from decades of sooty black skies to the rotten-egg smell around coke plants that was common as recently as 20 years ago.

“Overall, there's been steady improvement throughout. This last step, U.S. Steel basically went to new heights. ... It's major,” said Rich Lattanzi, mayor of Clairton, where the U.S. Steel coke plant is the epicenter of the area's soot pollution. However, “If the county wasn't on their butts, I don't think U.S. Steel would have moved in a timely fashion until the heat was on. They (the county) were the driving force.”

U.S. Steel declined to comment on that assertion.

County air quality officials have finished their latest plan to lower soot levels and will ask the Board of Health at its meeting Wednesday to approve a public comment period. Their calculations show daily levels are on course to meet legal limits first set by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1997 and tightened regularly since, county Air Quality Program Manager Jim Thompson said.

The county's projections aren't certain. They rely on new federal rules for cross-state air pollution to withstand a federal court challenge.

If the rules are tossed, it could create uncertainty about the county's ability to get federal approval for its plan, said Joe Osborne, legal director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution in Garfield. That might make it tough for county officials to prove improvements on a source-by-source basis or some other type of process yet to be determined, Osborne said.

Much of the soot reduction comes from U.S. Steel, which started a new battery of coke ovens at the plant on Nov. 24 as part of an effort to reduce its pollution. The effort took more than five years and $500 million. Thompson said two factors played an equal part: new federal rules designed to cut mercury pollution and pollution that crosses state lines, and economic conditions that led to closings and cleanups of some coal-fired power plants in the region.

The federal rules forced the county to produce several improvement plans to meet standards that federal officials kept tightening under the Clean Air Act. At times the county was so far out of compliance, the Health Department just tried to meet older, outdated standards. The plan the county will offer for public comment is designed to meet standards set in 2006 even though new standards replaced them in December, Thompson said.

His models suggest the plan will improve the county's air so fast, it will meet both the daily limits set in 2006 and the newest limits, he said. County officials announced in March that the level of soot in the air in Liberty, downwind of Clairton, met the average annual limits for the first time.

“We're very proud of the accomplishments we've made in environmental stewardship over time,” said Fred Harnack, general manager of environmental affairs at U.S. Steel. “Many times when you look at Clairton, you're looking at clear skies. ... The start-up of (the new coke) battery has supporting technology that will make that even more possible on a day-to-day basis.”

The new battery will help the environment and help the company consistently produce high-quality coke, used as a fuel in steelmaking, Harnack said. The company plans to complete two new low-emission quench towers by 2014.

The county had a key role in toughening enforcement, local environmental experts said. It increased emphasis on enforcing environmental regulations in 2005, including negotiations with U.S. Steel and actions against polluters on Neville Island, said Thompson, who was chief of enforcement then.

The pressure, especially the fines on Neville Island companies, set an example that encouraged polluters to clean up, said George Leikauf, professor of environmental health at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Pittsburgh is a great city. The biggest black eye it's had is that the air quality is bad,” Leikauf said. “My hat's off to Thompson for ... making sure pollution that is under his control is managed.”

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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