Allegheny County's toxic air guidelines up for vote today
Some of the businesses Allegheny County health officials counted on to help establish air pollution controls are among the opponents pressuring officials to delay a long-awaited vote on the policy.
“From our perspective, we think it needs further definition on the implementation process to be successful,” said Diane Kappas, a vice president at PPG, one of four companies the county consulted.
Board of Health members plan to vote on Wednesday on an update to 24-year-old rules that limit the amount of mercury, benzene and other heavy metals and acid gases that new or expanded businesses can put in the air. After seven years of planning, the rules are on the agenda for the 12:30 p.m. meeting in Lawrenceville.
A special committee formed to draft the rules included representatives from PPG, Koppers and U.S. Steel, which have complained to the county about the rules during a comment period leading up to the vote. PPG and Koppers joined the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce asking the board to reject the policy. U.S. Steel asked for changes.
The fourth company on the committee, Houston-based GenOn Energy, which owns power plants in Springdale and on Brunot Island, agreed to the plan.
The committee was supposed to form consensus among industry, environmental and health interests, but Kappas said PPG did not agree.
“The vote was not unanimous,” she said on Tuesday.
That had County Executive Rich Fitzgerald scratching his head.
“It is perplexing in many ways, and it's part of what we're trying to work through,” he said. “You get the impression that someone's for it, and then they're against it. Now, some of these are big organizations, and they may have different people within the organization having different opinions.”
The county received more than 200 comments, most of them citizen support, said Health Department spokesman Guillermo Cole. About 20 businesses, industry lawyers and interest groups asked the board to delay, change or dismiss the proposal.
Cole said he did not know if the board would vote on Wednesday, adding that members could opt to deliberate further and revisit the issue at their Nov. 7 meeting.
The board might seek a legal opinion on some of the challenges, but should be able to vote, Vice Chair William Youngblood said. When he spoke with board chair Dr. Lee Harrison on Monday, the plan included voting Wednesday, Youngblood said.
“Everybody's position is well-known. They've been well-established for years,” Youngblood said. “There isn't any policy out there that I've ever seen that someone didn't want to tweak. But at some point, you have to bring it to a vote and move forward. We can make adjustments at a later date.”
Harrison could not be reached.
Most of those who commented in support sent a two-paragraph form email, sometimes with minor variations. Many talked about asthma and other respiratory problems in the region, saying the county needed to take action. Some warned that the region's polluted air put the county at a competitive disadvantage against other regions when trying to lure tech jobs.
“We hope to have kids soon too and would love for them to be able to breathe normally and enjoy our beautiful county without worrying about what they're taking into their lungs,” Don Orkoskey of Central Lawrenceville wrote.
Opponents often cited a lack of clarity in the rules and questioned the county's claim that it's a minor policy tweak and not a new regulation.
“The policy is vague, poorly drafted, and if adopted will have a detrimental impact on the business climate in Allegheny County,” said Jeff Peters, president of the Pennsylvania Chemical Industry Council.
The Chamber of Commerce sent a letter signed by 13 businesses and industry groups that cited a legal opinion from environmental law firm Babst Calland claiming the policy might be illegal.
Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.