Millions in pollution fines went unused for decades in Allegheny County |
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Aaron Aupperlee

Millions of dollars in fines that polluters paid over decades accumulated and went unused in an Allegheny County fund established to improve air quality.

The county Health Department hopes changes to the Clean Air Fund will help environmental groups, universities and companies put more than $11 million sitting static to use.

“I don’t think the fund has been used to the full potential,” said Rachel Filippini, the executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution, a Garfield-based nonprofit. “But I don’t think there was a process in place to do that.”

The county’s air quality has ranked among the worst in the country, largely because of industries and upwind coal-powered plants. Though all county monitoring sites last year met Environmental Protection Agency standards for fine particle pollution, the American Lung Association gave the county an F in its 2014 State of the Air report. The Breathe Project, a coalition working to clean the air, ranks Pittsburgh’s air in the dirtiest 10 percent of U.S. cities.

The county established the Clean Air Fund in 1980, designating the money for research and development of technology to control pollution, studies and surveys on the health effects of air pollution, monitoring, educational programs, consulting services, equipment, materials or services for the county’s pollution control program and other projects.

The money cannot go toward helping companies comply with federal, state or county air regulations, said Jim Thompson, the Health Department’s deputy director of environmental quality.

The county spent about $4 million from the fund in the past four years. But for the 30 years before that, the Board of Health approved few requests, allowing the fund to grow to more than $12 million, Thompson said.

“We are currently approving projects at a higher rate than the money coming in,” Thompson said. “We shouldn’t have that much money in there. We should distribute it.”

Since 2011, 64 companies, schools and county authorities have paid $3.1 million in fines into the fund. U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works paid nearly $1.5 million; the company has spent more than $500 million to upgrade equipment there. The Shenango coke plant on Neville Island paid about $1 million into the fund. Fines at Eastman Chemical Co. have totaled $386,850 since 2011, according to Health Department records.

U.S. Steel and Eastman Chemical declined to comment on how the county should use the fines. Randi Berris, a spokeswoman for DTE Energy, the Michigan company that bought Shenango, said it is up to county officials.

“The fund provides an opportunity for Allegheny County to partner with the local communities in order to learn what kinds of initiatives would best serve their residents,” Berris said.

Groups bring projects to the Air Quality Advisory Committee, which suggests projects to the Board of Health, which has final approval. The board approved a standard application and made other changes this year, to streamline the process and make it easier to understand, board Vice Chair Bill Youngblood said.

Youngblood said he hopes the improved process leads to funding of more projects: “I would not be opposed to anything that meets the guidelines. The problem is the guidelines are so narrow.”

The Clean Air Fund pays for the county’s bounty program on old wood-burning stoves and boilers. A past program to upgrade diesel engines in school buses was not a success, but an ongoing $920,000 program to retrofit diesel trucks on Neville Island is gaining traction, Thompson said.

At its November meeting, the Board of Health approved giving $91,000 to the Student Conservation Association to help fund seven fellowships.

The fund gave $300,000 to GTECH, a Larimer nonprofit focused on green community development, to pay for a pilot program to improve energy efficiency and indoor air quality in 100 homes. Andrew Butcher, GTECH’s CEO, expects to have about 25 homes in the program by the end of the year.

Jane E. Clougherty, a professor at University of Pittsburgh, received $860,000 to monitor diesel emissions in Downtown. Data collection wrapped up in August and Clougherty hopes the study guides the Health Department in making decisions about regulating pollution from traffic.

She said the Clean Air Fund could help expand the study outside Downtown, or the money could be used to study air quality impacts of Marcellus shale drilling.

“Talk about an important issue in Southwestern Pennsylvania that needs objective funding to do science,” Clougherty said. “The Clean Air Fund or mechanisms like it are perfect.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or [email protected].

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