Achieving Air Quality Action in the City of Steel
Alandra Kahl outlines efforts to act on air quality in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

by Alandra Kahl

This post is part of a series

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has a history as the city of steel. As a center of industrial manufacturing on the East Coast, it consistently ranks among the worst cities for air quality. In the American Lung Associations’ State of the Air report, Pittsburgh ranked as 8th most polluted for airborne particle pollution or soot.

There are more than ten sites that affect local air quality in the Pittsburgh region, so it is important to have a broad monitoring strategy to help capture data to create a picture of local air quality. The impetus for monitoring in the region is two-fold; to collect data on known sites of pollution such as Mon Valley Works, which consists of the Clairton Coke Works, Edgar Thomson Steel Works, and the Irvin Plant as well as to build capacity for monitoring new potential sources of pollution such as fracking and natural gas exploration.

In the Pittsburgh region, the main authority for monitoring air quality and enforcement of clean air regulations is the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) in conjunction with the EPA.  The county health department utilizes data from local air quality monitors as well as on the ground information collected by field inspectors. The county routinely monitors hydrogen sulfide (H2S), temperature, inhalable particles (PM 10), fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) , sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone using twelve monitors. Data is released in the form of an Air Quality Index (AQI) report of average daily data, as well as hourly data, which is released then later verified. Data is also compiled in an annual air quality report.

Hourly readings, once verified, are averaged and then reported as part of the AQI.  The way that this data is averaged varies with parameter; for instance, the fine particulate matter data is calculated by averaging a day’s hourly readings, while ozone is reported in the AQI as the highest rolling 8-hour average. Therefore a high value reported on the monitors may not result in a high value on the AQI if the other hourly readings were low. In addition to hourly data, the county also collects data from filter based monitors that is analyzed in the laboratory. This data is only reported to the EPA as filter analysis can take several months. When there is a community concern, enforcement inspectors  from the County Health department respond to these by visiting the site to verify the report and collect additional data.  Community an citizen complaints  are received via a complaint line (412-687-ACHD) or via the county's online complaint system.

There are several community groups in the Pittsburgh region that monitor air quality in addition to the county health department. The most prominent among these groups is GASP (Group Against Smog and Pollution) and ACCAN (Allegheny County Clean Air Now). These non-profit organizations advocate for clean air by hosting education events, maintaining a clearinghouse of the operating permits for local industries including a summary of allowable emissions, and testifying at government hearings and local public comment forums. Advocacy by ACCAN was key to the closure of the Shenango Coke Plant, which was one of the biggest and most visible polluters in the Pittsburgh region.  ACCAN utilized a multi-pronged approach in conjunction with the CREATE (Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment) laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University to support their campaign for clean air. This approach utilized both visual monitoring via a camera as well as sensors deployed in the area to create a holistic data set. Photos were taken with the camera every few seconds to create a video that documented continuous pollution from the plant, which was coupled with particulate monitors throughout the community. Using the video and monitored information, along with "smell" reports and weather conditions, the CREATE Lab developed and launched The Shenango Channel in 2014. The Shenango Channel provided evidence of pollution from the coke plant and the impact on the surrounding communities to regulators, including the ACHD and EPA. It substantiated residents' complaints and provided proof of non-compliance by plant’s operators. The continuous monitoring and easy to read format from the Shenango Channel was important in making the case to local officials for increased monitoring. The data from ACCAN was presented to the ACHD and the EPA in community meetings and series of reports, which resulted in more frequent visits and additional monitoring of the facility by local officials. Officials verified the community data using their own monitors to show that the facility exceeded its permitted levels of emission 5 out of every 7 days at the height of operations. Advocates at GASP also used the information collected from the Shenango channel to file a citizens’ suit against the facility several times under the Clean Air Act, resulting in inspectors being on site five days per week and fines for the facility in excess of $300,000.  

Citing “global overcapacity in the steel industry”, the Shenango Coke Plant closed in 2016. There are still industrial facilities in the area, which remain in operation and continue to degrade the local air quality. ACCAN is monitoring those facilities using purchased small monitors from a company called AWAIR as well as continuing to work with CMU through the Real-Time Multi-Pollutant Sensors Project (RAMP). These large-scale monitors can be deployed anywhere and record data for five common air pollutants: carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and ozone. Recording are taken four times per minute and the data is averaged every 15 minutes. The Allegheny County Health Department’s air monitors average data about once an hour, so these RAMP monitors might be able to pick up pollution spikes that are not currently being detected by county monitors. GASP is also currently using these monitors to collect data about other industrial polluters such as the Mon Valley Works.

In the Pittsburgh region, community groups like GASP and ACCAN have been able to leverage resources from the local academic community to help support their efforts and amplify community voices for better air quality. By working with researchers to present holistic data sets that combine visual evidence and data, they have been able to support and substantiate the claims of residents about non-compliance. This data has also been used to support legal actions against polluters such as the Shenango Coke Works by providing a basis for a citizen’s suit. By presenting data from community monitoring to support citizen claims, these groups were able to draw needed attention to areas of pollution. Their actions resulted in increased monitoring by both ACHD and the EPA, to substantiate claims of non-compliance. These non-profit groups continue to move forward by working closely with local officials on community data monitoring and advocacy as a continuous conversation.

Alandra Kahl is an Associate Teaching Professor of Environmental Engineering at Penn State Greater Allegheny who advocates for open source solutions to  environmental issues in science and engineering.