Pittsburgh’s air quality has improved dramatically over the past 20 years, but a Carnegie Mellon University researcher says that’s no reason for area residents to be satisfied.
Allen Robinson, director of CMU’s Center for Air Quality, Climate and Energy Solutions, was involved in two recent studies that showed 30,000 lives could be saved annually by reducing air pollution levels below the current standard. The research appeared in the journals Environmental Health Perspectives and PLOS Medicine.
“To put that in perspective, the 30,000 number is comparable to the number of people who die each year in car accidents,” Robinson said.
The studies examined U.S. mortality related to fine particulate matter pollution, the complex mixture of chemicals than can penetrate deeply into the lungs, contributing to respiratory and cardiovascular disease and premature death.
The current U.S. standard for particulate matter is an annual average of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air. As of July 31, 2019, the annual average in Allegheny County is 13.
“If you compare Pittsburgh to other parts of the country, our air is still on average dirtier than other places. There are places with worse air quality than Pittsburgh in the United States, but certainly, we’re worse than average,” Robinson said.
Robinson said there are a number of factors that contribute to those higher-than-average pollution numbers in the Pittsburgh area. Industrial pollution is chief among them.
“Certainly, a bunch of pollution comes into the city because we’re downwind of the industrialized Ohio River Valley. You can clearly see the impact of the Clairton Coke Works and the Edgar Thomson Steel Works broadly over the region. To get our air really clean, the regional pollution has to be addressed,” Robinson said.
U.S. Steel, which owns the Clairton Coke Works as well as the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, said it has pledged significant investment in its Pittsburgh-area facilities to minimize environmental impact.
“In addition to $200 million in improvements to the Clairton Plant forthcoming as part of our agreement with the Allegheny County Health Department, U.S. Steel has recently announced an over $1 billion investment that includes new technology that will improve environmental performance and energy conservation while reducing emissions across our Mon Valley Works operations,” U.S. Steel spokeswoman Amanda Malkowski said.
“We believe that preserving the future of steelmaking in Allegheny County and improving air quality are not mutually exclusive goals,” Malkowski said.
Robinson says the findings of his study are particularly relevant at a time when the EPA is planning to change how it calculates the benefits of cleaner air by dismissing any health benefits below the current standard. The Trump administration also has aggressively rolled back environmental regulations on industry.
The president has said the changes will improve the U.S. economy and eliminate what he calls unnecessary regulatory obstacles. The latest rollback came this week when the administration moved to end regulations on methane leaks from oil facilities.
On Wednesday, a group of 63 elected officials from across Allegheny County called for cleaning up the region’s air and cracking down on industrial polluters.
“When researchers here at Carnegie Mellon tell us that even relatively low levels of air pollution are cutting short 30,000 lives annually and our region’s air quality is worse than the national average, we know we have a problem,” Pittsburgh Councilwoman Erika Strassburger said.
“We must work toward a future where good, high-paying jobs are also green jobs that help improve our air quality and our region, not diminish it,” she added.
State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said these are challenging times for environmental protections.
“It seems like every day there’s another rollback of our cornerstone environmental laws at the EPA,” Costa said. “We’ve had to fight hard to hold the line in Harrisburg, in the face of really tough politics.”