Allegheny County residents woke up to alerts of high levels of fine particle matter in the air on Valentine’s Day. Though it has come a long way since the industrial pollution era, the Pittsburgh area is not unused to air quality alerts. In fact, it happened again two days later.
Pittsburgh air quality was considered not good for 200 days in 2021 and 166 days in 2020. In 2022, the region was ranked by the American Lung Association as one of the top 15 most polluted cities in the nation for year-round particle pollution.
With current County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s third and final term ending this year, Allegheny County could soon take a new approach to air quality and regulating pollution. The Union Progress spoke with the Democrats running in the May 16 primary to better understand how they would approach air quality concerns.
Seven Democrats have announced bids to succeed Fitzgerald: County Councilor Liv Bennett; Theresa Sciulli Colaizzi, a former Pittsburgh Public Schools board member; Dave Fawcett, an attorney and former county councilor; state Rep. Sara Innamorato; Pittsburgh city Controller Michael Lamb; entrepreneur Will Parker; and county Treasurer John Weinstein.
Actions taken under Fitzgerald’s leadership
During Fitzgerald’s three terms, he’s supported the hiring of a new county Health Department director and the reorganization of the department in addition to the launch of the Live Well Allegheny campaign, which the county website describes as “a unique, comprehensive strategy to improve the wellness of county residents, and direction to be as aggressive as possible in holding air polluters accountable.”
The county has planted more than 8,000 trees in the past decade, enacted a clean construction ordinance, continues to invest in alternative fuel vehicles, and reduced building energy use, according to Fitzgerald’s biography. Allegheny County also met federal air quality standards for fine particulate matter for the second time in its history last year.
But despite these improvements, air quality advocates argue Allegheny County’s air remains woefully polluted.
“If we were running a race like a marathon, our region is coming in last place,” Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, told the Union Progress. “The rest of the country has and continues to improve its air quality well ahead of where we are. We are a lagging region when it comes to air quality, and there are consequences to our region’s health as a result, and it’s not good.”
Mehalik claimed that the statistics presented by Fitzgerald are often “cherry-picked” to mislead residents about air quality and make the situation sound better than it is.
“The county executive likes to compare our air quality now to what it was 30 years ago,” Mehalik said. “That’s like saying, ‘Look how great cellphones are in comparison to wall-mounted phones.’ The evolution of change itself makes today’s performance typically better than the past that has nothing to do with actions on the part of policy and so on.”
While on a recent walk on Deer Lakes Park’s orange trail, Jo Resciniti and her husband, Tim, of Concerned Residents of West Deer, said they were able to smell diesel fuel and machine oil, accompanied by a foul taste from a nearby well pad.
Jo Resciniti submitted a complaint to the county Health Department’s air quality division, but said she was never contacted and there was no follow-up from the county before the complaint was closed four days later.
“I think it speaks to a policy level or operationally by the Allegheny County Health Department ….” Resciniti said. “It disillusions people that care about their air quality to not even have anybody take the time and call you and explain it to you … that’s not fair to the people that live here and want and deserve clean air to breathe.”
Allason Holt, an enforcement manager with the county air quality program, said inspectors performed an odor investigation after receiving the complaint but were unable to identify the issues outlined by Resciniti.
Resciniti called Fitzgerald a “very active cheerleader” for the natural gas industry.
“Fracking at the airport, fracking next to the park — those were Rich Fitzgerald’s legacy,” she said. “That’s what he brought here in an attempt to open Allegheny County to that industry, and I think that in a highly populated county like this, we need places to live where we’re not encroached on by that sort of thing.”
Candidates push for stricter enforcement, collaboration with industry
The county has a variety of rules on the books regulating air quality, with a new one added in 2021 that is meant to curtail emissions in the Mon Valley during weather events known as inversions.
Fawcett, a lawyer who has experience in taking the county to court, called “reducing air pollution to the greatest degree possible” a top priority and promised stronger enforcement of environmental laws.
“On day one in office, I would create a county Department of Environmental Enforcement, which would consist of men and women with adequate resources whose job is to make sure companies are abiding by pollution laws and, if not, to make sure there’s real accountability,” Fawcett said. “We have a beautiful city, a gem of a city, with natural advantages, rivers and green hills, and there’s no reason we can’t be a recognized beacon of sustainability, and you can’t be that if your air isn’t as clean as it can possibly be.”
Lamb said that while the region often tries to put health first, “sometimes we are noticeably not great at that, and we need to solve that problem.” One solution could be a holistic approach that holds polluters accountable with investment in better air and more jobs.
Lamb said he plans to work with industry leaders to create clean energy while also adding jobs. To him, the Clairton Coke Works plant is an opportunity to do just that.
“We have ideas around the idea of creating jobs that clean air and water and developing public infrastructure to incentivize green and clean energy,” he said. “We want to go green; we don’t want to go dark.”
The well pad near Pittsburgh International Airport is also an opportunity to build around and further develop cleaner burning global jet fuel, something Lamb wants to capitalize on. By doing so, Allegheny County could see global support and become a center of research, Lamb said.
“People need to recognize that we’re moving toward a renewable-energy future, but it takes time to move away from natural gas,” he said.
Innamorato said she has plans to fill the Health Department with medical and public health professionals, look at fines and penalty structures to hold big polluters accountable, invest money received from the fines back into harmed communities and get tougher on air permits to encourage shifts in technology.
Similar to other candidates, Innamorato wants to work with U.S. Steel to bring in new innovations and modernize processes. She cited Sweden, which has been at the forefront of using green hydrogen in the industrial process and producing cleaner steel.
“We’re one of the slowest economies to rebound post-COVID, and I think a lot of that has to do with this emphasis on fossil fuel-based industries and energy production,” Innamorato said. “We could really think about how do we diversify our economy and therefore make it more resilient and really leverage the dollars that are available from the federal government … to attract federal money to our county but also our region to build up a new innovative and green economy that is going to create wealth in communities that have been left behind for a long time and create good-paying and family-sustaining jobs.”
Weinstein has his eye on funding from President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The county can improve its indoor air quality by renovating antiquated buildings, Weinstein said, a change needed just as much as remediating outdoor air.
“Air quality is the conduit to improving infrastructure,” he said. “We cannot expand unless we clean up air and water.”
“I will work with the Health department and defer to [Rep.] Summer Lee and [Sen.] John Fetterman at the federal level,” Weinstein continued. “I will work with them to rebuild and strengthen the air quality. We need to all work together for this to work.”
Bennet compared the region’s air quality to “swimming in dirty water and you don’t know it’s dirty.” While on County Council, she’s worked closely with Councilor Anita Prizio, who chairs the sustainability and green initiatives committee, to advocate for the environment.
“I want to see my kids and grandkids live on earth; it’s the only one we have,” Bennett said. “We need to be able to live here; clean air and water are the basics for what’s to be expected of the region.”
Bennett said it’s important to understand that the “major polluter is also a major employer,” so what happens if a plant as large as Clairton Coke Works were to shut down?
“Where do those folks go?” Bennett asked. “We need to have that conversation along with air quality. The fossil fuel industry is a very connectable pathway to retrain in sustainable and green jobs. We need to put that in motion and partner with workforce development.”
Bennett said younger workers will want to take advantage of being “reskilled” for free, something the county could potentially pay for with grants.
“Let’s start the conversation in new clean-energy jobs,” Bennett said. “It’s like the steel days — we’re there again. The industry is coming to an end, and we need to pivot, not wait for it to die. This way we can hold on to people and attract people to the region. We need to invest in the area instead of disinvesting.”
U.S. Steel announced a plan in 2019 to spend more than $1 billion in improving steelmaking efficiency and reducing emissions at its Mon Valley Works operations. CEO David Burritt wrote in an open letter two years later that the planned improvements were canceled.
Bennett said she’s eager to initiate more environmental-conscious conversations with the steel manufacturer.
“Depending on that conversation, we should also look at assessing fines in a way that it’s harder to meet and not just a slap on the wrist,” she said. “But we want U.S. Steel to be part of the solution, not the problem.”
Next executive could change face of key committee
Along with assigning positions in the Health Department, the county executive also appoints members of the Air Pollution Control Advisory Committee. The committee is the starting point for all local air quality rules in Allegheny County, including those setting emissions standards, reporting requirements and enforcement.
Numerous candidates spoke of creating a diverse panel of experts, advocates and community members.
“We want people who are engaged in air quality, who are engaged in new technology, who are engaged in economic future,” Lamb said. “We want to hear from community advocates and let them tell us the people they want to see. We have an active advocate community, and we want to tap into that, especially growth and justice groups in our river towns. We want to make sure they see more economic justice.”
Weinstein also said he wants to hear from impacted communities.
“There will be a cross-section of people across different industries and diverse members,” Weinstein said. “I’m an inclusive person. We want to hear from communities and be able to work with them.”
Innamorato said the committee should be more balanced because she feels it is heavily tilted toward professionals with backgrounds in economic development and industry. She wants the committee to include impacted communities; public health professionals, such as a doctor who treats asthma patients; scientists; economists; and people in risk management and occupational health and safety.
Candidates pledge transparency
Candidates assured transparency and comprehensive communication in the case of an air quality emergency such as the 2018 Christmas Eve fire at the Clairton Coke Works.
Mehalik said the county was slow to alert residents of the incident and consequential health risks. It wasn’t until people began to experience uncontrollable asthma that people started asking questions, and the Health Department mentioned there might have been a problem.
“From [an] informing the public perspective about health care risks, the county executive and the Health Department have not been doing a very good job,” Mehalik said.
Lamb said he values transparency and has put that at the forefront of his 15 years of service as city controller.
“We’re seeing that in East Palestine now. Incumbent elected officials are coming out from the start with the information on what the situation is, and what the remedy is,” Lamb said.
“As the controller, I’ve operated with candor, which has not always been easy,” he continued. “Sometimes you have to make the best bad decisions but be open and transparent about it.”
Fawcett pointed to his background as an attorney in addressing emergency issues.
“You need someone with the knowledge, and, I think most importantly, you need someone with the knowledge and the experience to deal with emergencies or crises,” Fawcett said. “As a lawyer, [I’ve] dealt with big issues of all sorts, so I know how to act quickly. I think I have good judgment and know how to get things done, which is why I’m running for the job.”
Along with transparency, Innamorato said the county executive must be able to accept accountability and the county’s role in an adverse impact.
“We do need to think about how we are prioritizing emergency management and planning because it’s for events like the fire in the Clairton Coke Works, but it’s also about things like the train derailment that happened in Ohio right on the border of Pennsylvania,” she said. “We need to make sure that all of our first responders are trained to respond to an environmental emergency of that scale, and all of that leads back to wanting to keep our families and communities safe and healthy.”
Mehalik said the county executive race is a critical moment for region. The next leader has a huge opportunity to help revive the Health Department and bolster enforcement to hold polluters accountable, he said.
“The solution is so reachable at this moment,” Mehalik said. “There is so much money that’s available through the Inflation Reduction Act, for our county to really move away from a fossil fuel-dependent economy. … We can be moving away from all of that with smart leadership and decision-making, and the prospects for that have not been brighter than right now.”
Hannah is a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Email her firstname.lastname@example.org.