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Region passes L.A. on pollution list

| Thursday, May 1, 2008

The American Lung Association today dealt Pittsburgh a black eye.

The city topped the group's annual ranking of metropolitan areas with the worst short-term fine particle pollution -- the first time in its nine years that the "State of the Air" report has given a city outside California the dubious title.

Environmental officials say it's undeserved because the association bases its ranking on one air quality monitor. Pittsburgh's ranking is based on a monitor in Liberty, a small Mon Valley town about 16 miles from the Golden Triangle.

"The air certainly is a lot cleaner in Pittsburgh," said Donald Welsh, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator for the Mid-Atlantic region. "Is it perfect• No, but the trend is in the right direction."

The lung association defended its methods, saying some other pollution monitors in the region also have high readings.

In the Pittsburgh area -- covering Allegheny, Westmoreland, Butler, Beaver, Armstrong, Washington, Fayette and Lawrence counties -- the monitor used is downwind of U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works, the nation's largest coke plant. The company plans to invest $1.2 billion to modify the plant to lessen pollution.

That monitor accurately measures air quality only in Clairton, Liberty, Glassport, Lincoln and Port Vue, where about 25,000 people live, said Guillermo Cole, Allegheny County Health Department spokesman.

"This is what's unfair about the ranking," Cole said. "This is a county of 1.2 million people -- 1,175,000 people throughout this county are not exposed to fine particle pollution at those levels found near Clairton."

The lung association ranks metro areas for three categories of pollution: ozone, and year-round and short-term particle pollution. The particles, from burning coal, wood or diesel fuel, are about 1/40th the size of a grain of sand. Short-term particle pollution refers to spikes in soot levels in a 24-hour period.

The 2008 report averages data collected by the EPA from 2004, 2005 and 2006.

Pittsburgh ranked second for year-round particle pollution and didn't make the top 25 for ozone, which is created when pollution reacts with sunlight and high temperatures.

Los Angeles, which last year ranked worst in all three categories, this year fell behind Pittsburgh for short-term particle pollution. It maintained its worst-ranking for long-term particle pollution and ozone.

Particulates are believed to contribute to between 5,000 and 50,000 deaths in the United States each year.

"They have been associated with increased cancer rates, but what they mainly do is increase deaths due to heart disease. They also cause increases in asthma attacks among children," said George Leikauf, professor of environmental health at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health.

To create its report, the lung association examined metro areas with at least one air quality monitor, a device that measures air pollution. Of the more than 3,000 counties nationwide, about 700 have monitors.

The Pittsburgh metropolitan area has monitors in 20 locations, and the lung association uses the one that records the worst pollution levels, as it does for all cities.

Because the coke works is located in a river valley, weather changes can trap pollution in the low-lying areas, Cole said.

"That's going to get lost, especially to outsiders who do not know the unique problem that we have here," Cole said. "The whole region and city gets a black eye that it really doesn't deserve."

The Liberty monitor had an average reading of 20.4 micrograms of soot per cubic meter of air -- the amount a person breathes in about two hours. Other monitors in the county ranged from 12.9 in South Fayette and North Park to 16.2 in North Braddock. The EPA considers 15 or less to be acceptable for human health.

"If you were to average the stations together, we'd come in under the national norm," said Frank Gamrat, senior research associate at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a Castle Shannon think tank.

"We don't average them together because you don't breathe average air," said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of national policy and advocacy for the lung association.

Even if the association used the area's next highest-recording monitor in North Braddock and the worst monitors in every other city, Pittsburgh would rank in the top 25, Nolen said.

"It is true that (the Clairton monitor) doesn't represent the air quality for the entire metropolitan ... area," said Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution in Squirrel Hill. "But the truth is that nobody living in this area has pristine, healthy air.

"And that monitor is located where about 25,000 people live and work and are breathing," she said. "It's not like it's in some desolate area where we don't have to worry about it."

Pollution-reducing upgrades at the coke works are expected to begin later this year. When the work is completed in 2014, the Health Department expects pollution in the area to meet EPA standards.

Air pollution near the Liberty monitor has improved in the past several years, falling from 21.4 micrograms of soot per cubic meter of air in the 2002 report to 20.4 in this year's report. Next year, the Health Department expects it to fall to 19.8.

The ranking probably won't deter businesses from locating in Pittsburgh because they are more concerned with taxation and the labor force, Gamrat said.

"How does this come across to others in the country• Well, not good," he said. "But I doubt if it would really cause a business to say 'Huh, maybe we shouldn't go there.' Most people think of us as smoky and polluted anyway, even though those of us who live here know otherwise."

Additional Information:

The dirty dozen

The Pittsburgh metropolitan area ranks first for short-term particle pollution, or soot, and second for year-round particle pollution in the American Lung Association's annual State of the Air report.

Short-term (high pollution levels for several hours)

1. Pittsburgh

2. Los Angeles

3. Fresno, Calif.

4. Bakersfield, Calif.

5. Birmingham, Ala.

6. Logan, Utah


1. Los Angeles

2. Pittsburgh

3. Bakersfield, Calif.

4. Birmingham, Ala.

5. Visalia, Calif.

6. Atlanta Additional Information:

Ask questions, get answers

U.S. Steel and Allegheny County Health Department officials will hold a public meeting at 7 tonight in the Clairton Municipal Building, 551 Ravensburg Blvd., to discuss how upgrades to the Clairton Coke Works are expected to reduce pollution.

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