It’s no secret that Pittsburgh and the surrounding region have an air pollution problem. A new report is now honing in on who’s responsible.
The PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center has released the Toxic Ten, a report citing 10 industrial facilities as the worst air polluters in Allegheny County. Using national and local data on air quality, including information compiled by the EPA, the report claims that the named facilities emitted more than 955,000 pounds of toxic pollutants in 2016, which contributed to more than 70 percent of the air pollution from all industrial sources in the county.
It also details how the facilities stacked up to a 2015 version of the report, with an interactive map that enables residents to look up their proximity to the Toxic Ten.
“We wanted to find a way to help identify what the major sources of the industrial pollution were, and also look at what the impact on public health was,” says Zachary Barber, Western Pennsylvania Field Organizer for PennEnvironment. “We came up with this as a way to quantify how toxic different facilities were, and then communicate to people what that meant in terms of what they were breathing.”
A number of public health problems in the Pittsburgh region have been attributed to poor air quality. As Barber points out, a University of Pittsburgh study ranked Allegheny County in the top two percent of US counties with the highest cancer risk from air pollution. Last year, a study from the Allegheny Health Network reported an “alarming” rate of asthma cases among children living near sources of industrial point pollution.
PennEnvironment also claims that emissions from the Toxic Ten contain substances linked to a number of other ailments, such as birth defects, reproductive problems and heart disease.
Here is the complete “Toxic Ten” list:
Cheswick Power Plant
ATI Flat Rolled Products (Brackenridge)
USS Clairton Plant (Clairton Coke Works)
ATI Powder Metals (Oakdale)
Valspar Coatings (North Side)
Universal Stainless and Alloy Products (Bridgeville)
BPI Inc. – McKees Rocks Plant
Harsco Metals (Natrona)
Pressure Chemical Company (Strip District)
McConway & Torley Foundry (Lawrenceville)
The coal-fired Cheswick Power Plant in Springdale topped the list for emitting large amounts of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, as well as lead and mercury. Barber says some new polluters appeared on the list since the 2015 report, among them the BPI plant in McKees Rocks, Valspar Coatings on the North Side, and the Pressure Chemical Company in the Strip District.
At number 10 is the McConway & Torley Foundry, a railroad parts plant in Lawrenceville. Despite its appearance on the list, Barber says it has made strides to reduce its emissions in response to public pressure and efforts made by PennEnvironment and partners like GASP.
The Allegheny County Health Department “issued a draft permit that would have drastically lowered emissions, but the plant would have had to cut production,” says Barber. “They’ve since revised it and made better use of technology and were able to make similar emissions reductions without limiting production at the factory.”
He cautions that while the McConway & Torley Foundry may seem like a “success story,” there are still obstacles in getting regulators to crack down on local polluters. PennEnvironment sued the Allegheny County Health Department to compel them to update the emissions permit for the ATI Flat Rolled Products site in Brackenridge, which ranks at number two on the Toxic Ten list. However, the permit draft they received last year would actually have allowed ATI to “drastically increase their emissions,” says Barber.
And that is hardly a rare case, as outdated permits have become a serious issue in trying to reign in emissions from the state’s industrial polluters. Earlier this year, PennFuture filed a settlement with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in an effort to force 10 coal-fired power plants throughout the state to update their expired water permits.
Ultimately, Barber sees the Toxic Ten list as a way to empower residents concerned about how air pollution affects their health and overall quality of life. He adds that you can plug the address of your home or your child’s school into the interactive map and “see where these facilities are in relation to your life.” Then you can use that information contact your local elected officials or perhaps file a complaint with the health department.
“We see that as a tool the public can use to engage with air quality,” says Barber. “We want our leaders to look at this and start to ratchet down the high levels of pollution coming from these facilities.”