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Panel gathers concerns about air toxics

Tony LaRussa
| Tuesday, April 10, 2012, 12:00 p.m.

A committee developing new guidelines for issuing permits to plants that emit toxic air pollutants conducted the last of its public "listening sessions" on Monday as it prepares to submit recommendations to the Allegheny County Board of Health.

No date has been set for when the 20-member committee of university professors, industry representatives and environmentalists will submit the guidelines to the health board for a vote.

Jim Thompson, manager of the county's Air Quality Control Program, is hoping the guidelines will become an essential tool for protecting public health.

"The reason we need these guidelines is that the federal and state regulations are not enough," Thompson said, noting that while those agencies have "rules and regulations," they often do not go far enough in addressing concerns in areas where there are high concentrations of industry.

Clairton was selected for the public meeting because it is home to the nation's largest coke works, which is owned by U.S. Steel.

A similar session was conducted in May in Avalon, which has been plagued by pollution emissions from a coke plant on Neville Island.

The air toxics guidelines the county currently uses when issuing 30 to 40 permits a year to companies that release pollutants date back to 1988, Thompson said.

Many of the 35 people who attended last night's session at the Clairton Municipal Building raised concerns ranging from the annoyance of air that smells bad to the possible health risks of breathing air that contains known cancer-causing toxins.

"The air positively stinks," said Pat Jones, who echoed many of the comments raised.

Irene Townsend said she has been suffering from asthma since returning to the Mon Valley after a 23-year absence.

Donald Burke, dean of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health and chairman of the committee developing the guidelines, said many of the comments made at the meeting are representative of the "strong feelings" people have expressed throughout the process.

Rose Bezy of Monongahela, Washington County, asked whether the new guidelines would apply to the burgeoning Marcellus shale industry.

"A lot of studies, especially from out west, talk about the air pollution it creates, especially from increased truck traffic," she said.

Thompson said while the county cannot regulate vehicle emissions, the guidelines will be used when issuing permits for natural gas facilities that emit pollutants, such as compression stations.

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