Anna Dekleva and her family moved to Pittsburgh a year ago encouraged by its “most livable city” reputation.
Then she discovered the city’s poor air quality.
“We are very happy here, except that we’re concerned about making a long-term future here given that we know people who have had issues with air quality and disease,” said Dekleva, a Greenfield resident who moved to Pittsburgh for her husband’s post-doctorate work. She has a 2-year-old son and another child on the way.
Members of the environmental group PennEnvironment on Tuesday joined Dekleva and others in presenting Allegheny County Council with a petition demanding clean air.
The petition included 6,000 signatures from county residents across 37 zip codes, including Allison Park, Aspinwall, Bethel Park, Carnegie, Monroeville, Moon, Oakmont, South Park, Swissvale and Wilkinsburg, as well as neighborhoods in Pittsburgh including Bloomfield, East Liberty, Homewood and Mount Washington. It called on council to keep pressure on the Allegheny County Heath Department to rein in emissions from major air polluters.
District 3 Council Member Anita Prizio accepted the petitions on behalf of council. Her district extends from Reserve to West Deer.
“We need to keep this in mind as we look to appoint people to the health department board and just make sure that we hold the Allegheny County Heath Department accountable, because they’re going to be the ones enforcing it,” she said during a news conference at the county courthouse.
Concerns about air quality were heightened this year following two fires at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works facility that knocked pollution controls offline.
Penalties related to the first fire, in December 2018, will potentially be addressed through a federal lawsuit brought by PennEnvironment, Clean Air Council and the health department.
The health department also reached a settlement with U.S. Steel in June over 2018 and early 2019 enforcement orders that includes $2.7 million in fines. The terms of that settlement are available for public comment until July 31.
The petition asks council to hold the health department, which is responsible for overseeing the county’s air quality, accountable for enforcing emissions limits and polluters’ operating permits.
This comes as the Allegheny County Board of Health, which oversees the health department, conducts a search to replace the department’s director. The current director, Dr. Karen Hacker, will leave the post at the end of the month to take a job with the Centers for Disease Control.
“As that happens, that means the Allegheny County Council has a new role to play in setting the priorities for the health department, and making sure that public health, clean air and cracking down on industrial polluters are actually a top priority of the county health department,” said Sarah Starman, Pittsburgh canvas director for PennEnvironment.
Residents and medical professionals, who gathered at the courthouse, also shared their concerns.
Dekleva’s family has been healthy, she said. But she worries about the impact poor air quality will have on their health, especially on days when the air smells like sulfur, or when she gets air quality alerts from weather apps on her phone.
Laura Dagley, who works as a home health nurse in Pittsburgh and serves as the medical advocacy coordinator for the group Physicians for Social Responsibility, said she works with patients who are trying to improve their health. It’s frustrating to see them get sick or experience asthma attacks or other health issues, she said.
“As a nurse, I try to help my patients take control of their health,” Dagley said. “I try to help them make their best decisions to live a healthy life. They can choose to quit smoking, to change their diet. But they can’t choose to stop breathing the air where they live.”