Pittsburgh Works Together published “Clearing the Air," an air quality analysis report for the southwestern Pennsylvania region, Thursday, pushing the message that public perception of the region’s bad air quality is skewed.
Pittsburgh Works Together, which identifies as a non-partisan alliance of labor, industry and civic leaders, said it used existing Environmental Protection Agency data, as well as other published studies, to put together the report.
The report comes after the Allegheny County Health Department reported on Jan. 26 that all eight air quality monitors in the county met federal air quality standards for the first time. The monitors measure carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone and particulate matter.
However, at the time, local environmental groups PennEnvironment and Breathe Project called the announcement a “premature victory lap.”
“We are in no way, shape or form saying the air quality in our region is perfect,” Jeff Nobers, executive director of Pittsburgh Works Together, said. “…The civic conversation and the headlines really do leave an impression that we believe is the wrong impression – that the air here is so much worse than it is other places.”
“Clearing the Air” highlighted some of its findings as evidence. For example, Pittsburgh Works Together referenced a 2020 PennEnvironment report called “Trouble in the Air” that said one third of Americans regularly breathe polluted air that increases the risk of premature death, asthma attacks and other health issues. According to Pittsburgh Works Together, Pittsburgh was not on the list of regions responsible for that statistic.
Rob Altenburg, director of the PennFuture Energy Center, said the organization does not dispute the fact that air quality in Pittsburgh is improving. He attributed some of that improvement to a “sharp decline” in coal generation — 80% during the Trump Administration, growing trends toward cleaner motor vehicles, as well as evolving industry rules at the PA Department of Environmental Protection, including joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
The air quality analysis also referenced an Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America reported that ranked the country’s 100 largest metro regions for asthma problems with Pittsburgh 54th on the list. It also mentioned a University of Pittsburgh study that ranked Allegheny County in the top 2% of counties in the country for cancer risk from hazardous air pollutants, but also stated that “this lifetime risk estimate is comparable to many other major urban centers in the U.S.”
“There is nothing here that is new,” Nobers said. “…What we sought to do is bring out the other facts and findings from reports that exist that are used by some groups to continue a narrative of very bad air and show there is a bigger story to this than those one or two particular facts.”
Pittsburgh Works Together’s analysis also states that over the last 10 years, nitrogen dioxide decreased by 45% across the region, ozone decreased by 20%, average particulate matter decreased by 31% and sulfur dioxide decreased by 69%. The report used EPA data to illustrate that Pittsburgh air was better than 40% of the top 50 metro regions for which it had data. The full report can be accessed on the Pittsburgh Works Together website.
Altenburg said there is still work to be done. He reported that in 2020, the region saw 154 days that the air quality index fell in the “moderate” range and 14 days in the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” range.
“While we are trending toward cleaner air, there is a lot of variability in the data caused primarily by weather patterns,” Altenburg said. “The fact that 2020 was a relatively good year does not tell us much about 2021. While 2020 did not have any days in the “unhealthy” range, 2019 had more days in that category than 2015 did.”
Morgan O’Brien, co-chair of Pittsburgh Works Together and former president and CEO of Peoples Natural Gas, said the public perception of the region’s air quality impacts the success of local manufacturing and energy companies.
“One of our major themes here is that as the country and the world thinks about reshoring manufacturing back to the U.S., we know that the standards we have in this country are some of the highest standards in the world. And in this region, we are complying with these standards,” O’Brien said. “…What our data shows here in Western Pennsylvania is that we can grow the economy and create good paying jobs and improve the air.”
O’Brien said the Covid-19 pandemic sparked plans to reshoring manufacturing efforts, and he said Western Pennsylvania should be “in the center of that renaissance.”
“We are not going to sit here and say you are never going to have emissions from a manufacturing facility,” Nobers said. “…That is a fact of life if you want to have a functional, good, economic-driven society. What our hope is is that this report is showing where we really stand.”
Yet, despite its positive message, the “Clearing the Air” report still called the Pittsburgh region a “C+ student” in terms of air quality.
Altenburg said in addition to the air pollutants explained in the report, other significant emissions of greenhouse gases exist.
“Replacing coal plants like Bruce Mansfield with gas generation may give us a short-term reduction in emissions, that trend isn’t sustainable,” Altenburg said. “The only way we are going to reach our climate goals is to invest in clean renewable energy and energy efficiency. Fortunately, those industries can bring more jobs to the region that the legacy polluting industry it replaces.”