Three-quarters of a century ago, the Pittsburgh area’s air quality was such that the city was derisively referred to as “Hell with the Lid Off.” For decades afterward, steel mills were rampant and so was pollution.
Most of those mills disappeared by the late 1980s and the region’s skies have improved since. They may not be pristine, but according to findings from a recent analysis, they are much better.
Pittsburgh Works Together, a nonpartisan alliance of labor, industry and civic leaders, released its findings on Thursday in a report titled “Clearing the Air.” The year-old group examined data, including small particulate matter and ozone, and concluded that air quality has improved across the Pittsburgh region over the past decade and “is typical for a big-city metropolitan area.”
Pittsburgh Works’ report came out 16 days after Allegheny County, for the first time, met federal standards at all eight local air monitors.
Jeff Nobers, executive director of the organization, was gratified by the findings, which conflict with some reports that Pittsburgh’s air quality has not been good in recent years.
“A narrative put forth by a few groups has continued to depict us as a dirty city, when – in truth – the numbers show us gaining ground and performing better than many cities perceived to have clean air,” he said in a statement.
Morgan O’Brien, co-chair of Pittsburgh Works, said: “Businesses considering bringing jobs to the region and families thinking about moving here deserve to have an accurate picture of the area.”
Among the findings Pittsburgh Works cited were:
- Over the past 10 years, the region experienced decreases in the levels of nitrogen dioxide (an average of 45%), ozone (20%), particulate matter (31%), sulfur dioxide (69%) and lead (100% to a zero reading).
- The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America ranked Pittsburgh 54th among the 100 largest metro regions for asthma problems. The erstwhile Steel City was between two high-risk corridors: Dayton (No. 2), Cleveland (No. 5) and Columbus (No. 18) to the west, and Philadelphia (No. 4), Boston (No. 8) and Baltimore (No. 19) to the east.
- A University of Pittsburgh report stated that Allegheny County ranks in the top 2% of counties nationwide for cancer risk from hazardous air pollutants, while adding: “This lifetime risk estimate is comparable to many other major urban centers in the United States.”
An official at PennFuture, an environmental support group based in Harrisburg, read the report and did not dismiss its ultimate conclusion. “No one disputes the fact that the air quality in Pittsburgh is getting cleaner,” said Rob Altenburg, director of the organization’s Energy Center.
Altenburg, a former longtime employee with the state Department of Environmental Protection, added in an email, however: “There is still work to be done.”
He said Pittsburgh’s Air Quality Index dropped into the “moderate” range (51 to 100) on 154 days last year. “That can create health risks for those with respiratory conditions and other issues that render them unusually sensitive to air pollution. There were also 14 days in the ‘Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” category (101 to 150) that also has significant health impacts.”
Altenburg went on to say “in addition to the pollutants mentioned in the report, there are still significant emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to the growing climate crisis. Replacing coal plants like Bruce Mansfield with gas generation may give us a short-term reduction in emissions, (but) that trend isn’t sustainable. The only way we are going to reach our climate goals is to invest in clean renewable energy and energy efficiency.”
Matt Mehalik also weighed in on the report. He is executive director of the Breathe Project, a local coalition focused on air-quality issues.
“There can be no victory laps on air quality achievement in Southwestern Pennsylvania,” he said in a statement. “We have serious challenges.
“Attempts to muddle this picture comes at the expense of residents who experience negative air quality on a daily basis and who suffer the health consequences of ongoing air pollution.”
Nobers concluded that the two sides must “find a middle ground.”
“Without industry of all types, a region stagnates, its businesses close and its people live lesser lives. Environmental progress is a value we share, but so is prosperity for working families.”