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

Monday, April 18, 2016

On their terms: residents combat poor air quality to #CleanUpClairton

Although regulatory agencies are required to protect public health by enforcing federal air quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we find that in reality that may not always be the case. 

For example, 20 miles south of Pittsburgh, residents of the City of Clairton are questioning whether a recent settlement with the largest coke producer in North America will protect public health.

"We've seen the consent agreements between U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works and the health department over the past several years that I have lived here, and, frankly, the air quality has not changed," said Clairton resident, Pat Jones. "We are skeptical." 

With the lack of community trust that regulatory agencies are creating a path toward a healthier, livable environment, residents are taking matters into their own hands. We outline some ways community members in and around the City of Clairton are combatting poor air quality on their own terms.

Smoke School

Recently, Eastern Technical Associates (ETA) offered a free Visible Emissions Certification program, or "smoke school." This type of program is required by the EPA in order for an individual to be recognized as a qualified observer of stationary emissions sources, like U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works. 

The class took place at Settlers Cabin Park on an early Tuesday morning. ETA brought their smoke machine and demonstrated the various different opacity levels from both black and white smoke emissions. Each participant would fill in estimated opacity levels on a zero to 100 scale for each round of testing. The test is harder than it looks - most participants went through three rounds before passing the test. 

Chris Harper, an electrical engineer from Edgewood, has been a certified smoke reader for a couple years. He uses his certification to be a citizen watchdog over Clairton Coke Works, because he says the pollution plumes affect his community. 

Harper also publishes an online air quality dashboard for others to see what is going on throughout the region. 

Speck Monitors

Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab is using technology to foster citizen engagement in air quality. Through spinoff, Airviz, knowing what is in the air you breathe is as easy as borrowing a book from your local library. 

This month, Airviz donated 10 Specks - monitors that detect particulates in homes and workplaces - to the Clairton Public Library

Odessa Ellis, children's services coordinator for the library, said she is very excited about having the Specks and plans to incorporate them into children's programs and hopes parents will check them out for home use. 
Clairton Public Library's Odessa Ellis, Freda Montgomery, and Audrey Minarcik show off the library's new Speck sensors.
Clairton School District, Southside Human Resource Community Center, and a locally owned and operated Clairton daycare center have already adopted Specks.

Student Activism 

As community groups and residents in the Mon Valley area are working toward monitoring the air quality, younger residents are contributing to spreading awareness of the issue. With a large percentage of Clairton students having asthma, air quality is a major concern for them. 

High school students of Stay Positive Clairton, a project of Youth Opportunites Development, are learning to spread the word of about air quality in their neighborhood. Partnering with environmental groups like PennFuture and PennEnvironment, they are preparing to gather signatures for a petition to the Allegheny County Health Department during community events like basketball games as well as door-to-door canvassing. 

Stay Positive Clairton's program director, Brandon Ziat, says that the petition is a great leadership opportunity for kids to build leadership skills and shape their community. 

"Every day when I drive to work with the kids, I see the plant. Air pollution is a constant worry and it's great to know that something is being done about it and kids can get involved," added Ziat. 

Do you suspect poor air quality in your area? 
We want to hear your story. 

Annie Regan is the western Pennsylvania outreach coordinator for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh. She tweets @MsAnnieRegan. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The hidden truth behind existing sources (of methane pollution)

Over the past year, the chatter on methane pollution from oil and gas operations has gotten much louder—and that's a good thing. This has been helped along by the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed rules in August 2015 to cut methane pollution from new and modified sources in the oil and gas industry. Going a step further, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a four-point plan in January 2016 to curb methane pollution from new and existing sources of oil and gas operations in Pennsylvania. Last month, President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to work on rules for existing sources of oil and gas methane pollution that would address emissions across the U.S. and Canada.

It's the latter proposals to cut existing sources of oil and gas methane pollution that have caused much consternation among oil and gas producers. These companies, and their lobbyists, are quick to offer sound bites suggesting that they've got this, they are addressing existing sources of pollution voluntarily as it's in their best interest, and that there's no need for what they view as unnecessary and duplicative standards. The short answers, from where we sit, are no, no and no.

Existing sources of oil and gas operations, or the hundreds of thousands of wells, tanks, and compressor stations across the U.S., routinely vent, flare and leak methane. Methane, or CH4, is the primary constituent of natural gas and is a potent greenhouse gas, 86 times more so than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after its release into the atmosphere. This airborne pollution is a public health problem, a waste of our natural resources, and a climate disaster in the making.

When oil and gas producers refer to methane pollution and say they've got this, they're wrong. Methane pollution from existing sources—the bulk of the problem—continue to increase as both Pennsylvania and EPA inventories indicate. Where we have seen some marked declines is in the category of green well completions, or the process of completing a well and readying it for production. It's worth noting that green completions are the one regulated category of methane emissions. Two words: Rules work.

As to voluntary compliance, that's pretty much another fallacy. The EPA's Natural Gas STAR program, which promotes voluntary efforts to rein in oil and gas pollution, struggles with woefully low buy-in from the industry. While Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary John Quigley has singled out Southwestern, Shell, Chevron and CONSOL as large producers that work to cut methane pollution, he also acknowledges that the bulk of small-mid size producers are nowhere near curbing emissions on a voluntary basis. Further, Quigley has stated that methane emission figures in the state are "unrealistically low" because leaks are so common and rarely measured.

Lastly, the suggestion that proposed methane rules for existing sources in Pennsylvania would be unnecessary and duplicative is absurd. Unnecessary? See the two previous paragraphs. Duplicative? Impossible, as Pennsylvania currently has no comprehensive regulatory framework for methane pollution from oil and gas operations. Colorado does, Pennsylvania is working on it, and California recently proposed its own suite of methane rules. We applaud Sec. Quigley's continued call for "best-in-the-nation" standards on methane pollution in PA.

Existing sources of methane pollution are a clear and present danger and must be addressed. The Wolf administration is on its way to doing just that, and 70 percent of Pennsylvanians in a recent poll support the effort. The proposed rules are laudable, and we thank the governor for his bold leadership.

In the weeks and months ahead, PennFuture will provide ample opportunity for citizens of the commonwealth to show their support for rules that cover existing sources of methane pollution. It's time to rein in this harmful pollution and protect our communities. We stand ready to help.

Elaine Labalme is strategic campaigns director for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh.