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PennFuture Facts :: brief, interesting looks at topical environmental issues PennFuture Facts :: brief, interesting looks at topical environmental issues

Thursday, August 27, 2015

This will NOx your SOx off!

This is the first in a multi-part series on air quality.

What will NOx my SOx off, you ask? Well it’s this blog series on air quality, of course! For the next four weeks we will bring you lots of pictures and infographics to illustrate various aspects of air quality and why it’s important to care about the air you breathe.

We will cover the following topics:

1. Introduction to blog series and air pollutants
2. What Pennsylvania’s air looks like now
3. Different air quality standards and how they came about
4. Steps you can take to improve our air

First off, what exactly is air pollution? In short, it's the stuff that comes out of car tailpipes, industrial combustion stacks, and from aerosol cans, for example. Tiny particles, gases, and vapors are breathed deep into the lungs where they can make people sick. 

To understand air pollution, it helps to understand the key players. Let's stop here to look at some common air pollutants, where they come from, what their chemical composition is, and how they impact humans. For starters, NOx refers to any nitrous oxides, be it NO, NO2, NO3, etc. The same goes for sulfur oxides SO, SO2, SO3, etc. Each of the various oxides are emitted from the same pollution sources, but NO2 and SO2 are the most prevalent. 

One common form of air pollution is ground level ozone pollution (commonly referred to as smog), which forms when NOx emissions combine with volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight. In Pittsburgh, we see days where there is so much ozone pollution in the air that people with heart conditions, asthma and other lung diseases are unable to go outside.

Check out the infographic to learn more!

Nicole Catino is Penn Future’s 2015 Student Conservation Association Green Cities Sustainability Fellow and is based in Pittsburgh. 

#ICYMI: Wolf issues oil train safety report

Gov. Tom Wolf's administration recently released a report featuring 27 recommendations to improve safety on Pennsylvania rail routes carrying Bakken crude oil. The report was prepared by Dr. Allan Zarembski, an expert on railroad engineering and safety from the University of Delaware. The report’s recommendations address what railroad companies and the commonwealth can do to reduce the risk of a crude-by-rail incident. 

While the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration is the only body with regulatory authority over railroads, Gov. Wolf has been vocal about the need to address crude-by-rail safety concerns. The administration’s state-level leadership on this issue is not surprising given that every week, 60 to 70 crude oil trains pass through Pennsylvania destined for refineries in Philadelphia and other locations in the region. About 705,000 Philadelphia-area residents live within a half-mile potential evacuation zone around railroad routes used to ship crude oil.

Photo: NBC10 Screenshot
What’s more, Philadelphians have had two close calls in recent history with train derailments. 

Earlier this year, a partial oil train derailment occurred in south Philadelphia, shutting down traffic along I-95. In January 2014, a train carrying Bakken crude derailed on a railroad bridge that crosses the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Fortunately, there were no injuries and no immediate environmental impacts. 

However, as Philadelphia contemplates its own energy future, it's important that we discuss the potential safety implications of routing crude oil trains through on our densely populated urban area. 

Katie Bartolotta is southeastern Pennsylvania outreach coordinator for PennFuture and is based in Philadelphia. She tweets @KatieBartolotta.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Clairton Coke Works: Continuous improvement to the environment?

Clairton Coke Works is the largest coke manufacturing facility in the United States. The plant dumps toxic pollution into the air as it manufactures more than 4.7 million tons of coke, each year.

Located in Clairton, the mill sits along the Monongahela River, south of Pittsburgh.

Research from the University of Pittsburgh shows that air toxics, released from industrial facilities such as Clairton, increase the risk of cancer incidences over a wide geographic area.

Individuals living in Clairton and the surrounding communities report high rates of air pollution-associated health problems. Health concerns include cancer, asthma and lung disease.

The Environmental Protection Agency states that children, the elderly, those with chronic lung disease and asthma are especially affected by harmful air pollutants.

Clairton Coke Works continuously spews dangerous toxins into the air we breathe. Yet, U.S. Steel advertises that the plant continuously improves the environment.

What do you think? Concerned about air pollution and your health? Contact Valessa at souter-kline[at] We want to hear from you. 

Nikole Baker is a PennFuture intern based in Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Code orange reminds us that air pollution is still a problem

On July 28, an air quality alert was in effect for the Pittsburgh region stemming from a sweltering heat wave across the U.S. This "code orange" alert is a warning to those sensitive to exposure such as children, people with respiratory diseases, and those who are active outdoors. During these extremely hot days, smog is a main health concern and can have detrimental effects on our lungs by irritating the respiratory system, reducing lung functioning, and aggravating asthma. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), smog is ground-level ozone that forms when harmful air pollutants, usually emitted from industrial and chemical plants as well as cars, chemically react with sunlight. This damaging chemical reaction, when trapped close to the earth’s surface, forms “bad ozone” (not all ozone is bad - that which is higher in the atmosphere protects us from damaging UV rays). Bad ozone is most often seen in cities around the country where air pollution emissions - and populations exposed to air pollution - are greatest. Numerous power plants and factories - including U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, the largest coke processing facility in the nation - are still operating in the Pittsburgh region and adding smog-forming pollution to our air

Fortunately, on Monday, August 3, 2015, President Obama and the EPA announced the Clean Power Plan as a vital effort to tackle climate change by cutting carbon emissions. This pollution, emitted from power plants along with other toxins, contributes to soot and smog. With more hot days on the horizon, smog will have a greater effect on all of us, particularly vulnerable populations.

The Clean Power Plan represents the action needed to minimize air pollution.

For more information on air pollution, take a look at this video on air quality and climate from our good friends at Communitopia.

Nikole Baker is a PennFuture intern based in Pittsburgh.

Does a coal-to-gas switch = bad to worse?

On August 3, 2015, President Obama announced the final rule for the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut carbon pollution from power plants by 32 percent by 2030.

The good news in Pennsylvania is that we're already roughly halfway to meeting that goal. A Statewide Implementation Plan will be crafted over the next year that will allow us to meet the full goal utilizing "building blocks," which include adding more renewable energy to Pennsylvania's electric generation mix and accelerating energy efficiency, increasing efficiency at coal-fired power plants, and making a switch in electric generation from coal to natural gas.

Okay, not so fast on that last one as a switch from coal to natural gas warrants a close look. Carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants is indeed a huge problem as C02 is a greenhouse gas that will warm our planet, and remain in the atmosphere, for a very long time. Centuries. Natural gas, on the other hand, is a cleaner burning fuel whose current low prices makes it an (apparent) logical choice for a coal-to-gas switch.

However, natural gas operations bring the very real issue of methane emissions as a by-product of drilling operations. Methane or CH4, the primary component of natural gas, is a far more potent greenhouse gas than coal, up to 84 times more so in the first 20 years after its release into the atmosphere. While it remains in the atmosphere for a shorter time than carbon, its planetary warming wreaks a tremendous amount of havoc in the meantime.

Photo credit: WCN 24/7 via Flickr Creative Commons

If we are to truly combat climate change, we must address both carbon and methane emissions. Simply trading one for the other accomplishes little.

Where we need to focus our energy in the battle against climate change is on renewable energy and energy efficiency. These cleaner measures will create good-paying jobs and save consumers money on their electric bills. Pennsylvania currently boasts 57,000 jobs in the clean energy sector and is poised for many more. Studies show that aggressive energy efficiency measures could drive down electricity bills by nearly 10 percent by 2030.

As the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) readies its response to the Clean Power Plan, it must also roll out strong standards that address methane emissions from both new and existing sources of natural gas operations. We cannot trade one problem for another since that will only make a bad situation worse.

Elaine Labalme is strategic campaigns director for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh. She tweets @NewGirlInTown.