EPA threatens Pennsylvania with sanctions for failing to reduce soot pollution in Allegheny County

State and Allegheny County Health Department are both late in updating plans to address harmful particulate matter pollution

The EPA has put the state of Pennsylvania and the Allegheny County Health Department on warning—take swift action to reduce soot pollution in the region, or face sanctions.


The notice, published Friday on the Federal Register, cites Pennsylvania, California, and Idaho for failing to submit revisions to their state implementation plan ("SIP") to satisfy Clean Air Act requirements for fine particulate matter, commonly referred to as soot. The notice also states that if they fail to submit an EPA-approved plan for reducing soot pollution within 18 months, they'll be subject to sanctions under the Clean Air Act.

The health effects of particulate matter pollution, which consist of microscopic solid and liquid particles suspended in air, are well documented and include higher rates of asthma and cancer, decreased lung function in children, and increased hospital admissions and premature death due to heart attacks and respiratory illness.

The EPA notified the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) that they were out of compliance with the Fine Particulate Matter National Ambient Air Quality Standards section of the Clean Air Act in 2012. An official plan to correct that problem was due on October 15, 2016. The ACHD has yet to submit one.

"The complexity of the [state implementation plan] required additional time than was allotted," Dr. Karen Hacker, the director of the Allegheny County Health Department, said in an emailed statement. Hacker added the department is actively involved in completing the plan and intends to finish it "well within the 18 months" before the EPA imposes sanctions.

Rachel Filippini, the executive director of Pittsburgh's Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), criticized the health department's delay.

"This is not the first time the ACHD has failed to submit a State Implementation Plan on time," Filippini said. "By failing to submit on time they not only put the region at risk of being sanctioned by the federal government, they also potentially delay the implementation of much needed pollution controls that will reduce fine particulates in the region."

Of the three counties cited for failing to comply with Clean Air Act requirements in Pennsylvania (Allegheny, Delaware, and Lebanon Counties), Allegheny County was missing the most elements from their plan. Only one other county in the country—Imperial County, California—was missing as many elements as Allegheny County.

The Pittsburgh metro area has the worst track record of fine particulate matter pollution of any city east of the Mississippi. In 2015, Pittsburgh experienced 220 days with elevated levels of fine particulate pollution.

"In Pittsburgh we have a right to breathe clean air that our leaders aren't actually protecting for us," said Zach Barber, a field organizer with PennEnvironment. "We're unfortunately breathing some of the worst air in the country because of a legacy of failure to control industrial polluters."

Barber pointed out that while diesel emissions likely account for some fine particulate matter pollution, ten industrial facilities account for 70 percent of Pittsburgh's overall air pollution.

"Failing to execute a plan that would bring us into compliance with federal laws and keep us safe is just another example in a long string of failures," Barber said. "Our leaders haven't done enough to protect Allegheny County from air pollution."

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