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Allegheny

Clean air activists get hour-plus meeting with Allegheny County executive

Theresa Clift
| Friday, Aug. 3, 2018, 5:06 p.m.
Protesters gather in the Allegheny County Courthouse courtyard to voice concerns about air quality on Aug. 3, 2018.
Protesters gather in the Allegheny County Courthouse courtyard to voice concerns about air quality on Aug. 3, 2018.

Five environmental activists went to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s office Friday to deliver petitions about air quality concerns and ended up in a more than hour-long private meeting with Fitzgerald and three other county officials.

Members of the local chapter of PennEnvironment asked county officials not to use Clean Air Fund money for office renovations, to hire more air quality staff for the health department and made other requests during the meeting, said Ashleigh Deemer, PennEnvironment’s Western Pennsylvania director.

A reporter was not allowed in the meeting.

The group has gathered more than 2,000 signatures from Allegheny County residents asking for the same requests, Deemer said.

When the activists went to deliver the first 1,000 petitions last month, officers from the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office did not allow the group of nine people to enter Fitzgerald’s office. County Spokeswoman Amie Downs said it was a miscommunication and went to retrieve the petitions from the courtyard and gave them to Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald on Friday turned down the group’s request for a town hall-style event where members of the public could voice air quality concerns, Deemer said. Board of Health meetings are open to the public and public comments are accepted, but comments on non-agenda items are saved for the end of the meetings, which often last more than three hours and occur just past noon on weekdays.

“We have a lot of people in the county who have their perspective and just want to be heard. We as organizations can’t speak for all of them and petition signatures don’t tell the whole story,” Deemer said.

Downs said the county executive instead asked the group for solutions, proposals or actions that could have an impact on air quality. Deemer told the officials in the meeting they had several and would provide those to Fitzgerald, Downs said.

County officials in the meeting Friday stood by their decision to use $10 million from the Clean Air Fund and Title V Fund to renovate offices for health department’s air quality staff, Deemer said. Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council and Edgewood-based Group Against Smog And Pollution sued the county over that issue in June.

“We want the Clean Air funds to be used for actually cleaning the air,” said Matt Mehalik, director of the Hill District-based Breathe Project.

The activists praised the county officials for fining US Steel $1 million for pollution at Clairton Coke Works — a fine the company is appealing — and asked the county to fight back. Deemer said county officials told the group they are trying.

“They said they’re not messing around with consent decrees anymore. We appreciate that because we think Clairton Coke Works is one of the largest sources of pollution in the county,” Deemer said.

Mehalik agreed.

“We want to stand behind the health department’s enforcement action on US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works,” Mehalik said. “We want to ensure that the health department follows through on its enforcement action … that’s a $1 million fine and requirements for them to either fix two of their worst performing coke batteries or shut them down.”

Downs said: “We were glad to hear that Ashleigh and the other representatives/canvassers are supportive of the actions that the health department is taking and that the items outlined in their petition – crackdown on polluters, revision of existing permits, and increasing consequences for violating the law – were either already being done or were underway.”

Fitzgerald and county officials have met with the environmental groups several times before Friday, and another meeting is scheduled for later this month, Downs said.

Read more local news happening in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Theresa at 412-380-5669, tclift@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tclift.

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