Misleading Rankings on Air Pollution
The ranking is extremely misleading because it is based on unusually high readings at two monitors in a small part of the Mon Valley – Liberty Borough and Clairton. The readings there are high because the monitors are close to the U.S. Steel facilities in the Mon Valley. All of the monitors in the rest of the southwestern Pennsylvania region either meet federal standards or are within 6% of the standards. (The readings at Liberty Borough are 21 micrograms per cubic meter, which is 50% higher than the readings at most of the monitors in the region.)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognized that the high readings at these monitors were not representative of the air quality in the rest of the region, and in 2005, it designated five municipalities in the Mon Valley as a separate non-attainment area for particulate matter pollution. This was done explicitly to insure that the monitors there did not affect the ability of the rest of the region to meet federal standards.
Despite this, the American Lung Association reports the readings at these monitors as though they were representative of the entire region, which they are not, and implies that the air quality in the City of Pittsburgh and the entire southwestern Pennsylvania region is extremely poor, which it is not. It is bad enough that the rankings provide misleading information about an important quality of life issue, but they are particularly problematic because they reinforce the mistaken impression held by many people around the country and around the world that Pittsburgh is still the “dirty, smoky city” it was 50 years ago.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review dug into the story enough to be able to report this fact. However, their story also implied that southwestern Pennsylvania hasn’t done as much as other regions to clean up particulate matter pollution. Unfortunately, they didn’t dig far enough (or re-read their own previous reporting) to find out that studies done by Carnegie Mellon show that up to 80% of the particulate matter pollution in southwestern Pennsylvania is caused by pollution sources in states to the west and south, not by sources in southwestern Pennsylvania. Nor did they report that EPA projections indicate that southwestern Pennsylvania will comply with federal particulate pollution levels as soon as EPA’s Interstate Air Quality Rule goes into effect.
The bottom line: Air quality in the Pittsburgh Region isn’t nearly as bad as what the American Lung Association would have you believe, and much of the problem that does exist is not our fault.
The same problem of pollution transported by wind from other states is the major cause of high ozone pollution levels in southwestern Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, EPA has designated southwestern Pennsylvania as a non-attainment area for ozone and imposed stricter pollution regulations here than in upwind states, even though the major causes of the problem are in those upwind states. This creates a perverse incentive for businesses to locate in upwind states (where the pollution control requirements are less stringent) rather than in southwestern Pennsylvania, yet their pollution still is brought here by the wind. In other words, we lose the jobs and get more pollution, too. The federal rules are so out of whack that when the state of Pennsylvania installed a special ozone monitor in rural Greene County that was specifically designed to measure how much ozone pollution was coming from upwind states, the EPA designated Greene County as “nonattainment” for ozone because the ozone readings at that monitor were so high due to transported pollution!