Health Department Tables Air Quality Updates, Angering Residents

The Allegheny County Health Department board last week tabled a plan to modernize air quality policy even though the county has some of the worst pollution in the US. Even a dire new EPA cancer study targeting the towns of Clairton and Glassport failed to move the board to action. The Allegheny Frontís Deborah Weisberg was there.

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OPEN: The Allegheny County Health Department board last week tabled a plan to modernize air quality policies even though the county has some of the worst pollution in the US. Even a dire new EPA cancer study targeting the towns of Clairton and Glassport failed to move the board to action. The AF's Deborah Weisberg was there.

Weisberg: Avalon resident Janet Strahosky left the county health department in disgust last week after board members failed to approve a plan that would have updated air quality standards for industrial emissions.

Strahosky: They donít have any interest in protecting our healthÖall they have an interest in is promulgating their position on the board of healthÖit's a farceÖan absolute farceÖand I'm infuriated.

Weisberg: The health department admits that Neville Island is a pollution hot-spot. Strahosky says she is tired of living with threats to her health.

Strahosky: You live in fearÖyou live in fear constantly. Every time you go to the doctor it's in the back of your mind because these statistics prove the cancer rates are higher in this area.

Weisberg: Strahosky's fears of higher cancer risks may be a reality to people living across the county in Clairton and Glassport. A new EPA study says residents of those Mon Valley towns are 20 times more likely to develop all kinds of cancers than people living elsewhere in the US. David Guinop authored the study which was based on 2002 industrial and vehicle emissions.

Guinop: This program that we're talking about focuses on benzeneÖacrolyan and specific chemicals like dioxan that are known to cause cancer in human beings over the long course of exposur. A number of those pollutants are also associated with emissions from combustion-oriented industrial sources like coke ovens for example

Guinop: The closer you live to some of these sourcesÖthe higher your exposure will beÖand the higher your risk over the course of a lifetime.

Weisberg: County health department board members heard an interpretation of Guinop's study at their meeting last week by health department epidemiologist Ronald Vorhees, Vorhees told them he'll do his own cancer study based on actual cases and not projections like the EPAs. The board also heard impassioned testimony from county residents like Laura Kunschner of Ben AvonÖ a neuro-oncologist and the mother of young sonsÖ

Kunschner: Myself and one of my children has developed asthma since moving hereÖmany of my neighbors contracted cancer at very young ages in their 30s and 40sÖalso in my work Iíve noticed an amazing incidence both of what I treatÖwhich is brain tumorsÖbut other tumors as well which seems to be grossly disproportionate to the population in our valley around Neville Island.

Weisberg: But neither the EPA study nor the pleas from folks like Kunschner were enough to convince the board that new air quality standards are needed now. Board member Jim FlynnÖthe Allegheny County managerÖsaid tighter regulations would hurt existing industries and keep new ones from locating here. Flynn and his fellow board membersÖincluding several physiciansÖvoted to table the planÖand wait until the state adopts new standardsÖwhich could take several years. Only Dr. Donald Burke from Pittís Graduate School of Public Health dissented.

Weisberg: Tom Hoffman of Clean Water Action stormed from the room with Janet StrahoskyÖboth of whom blasted County Executive Dan OnoratoÖ

Hoffman: looked like the fix was in to me. Dan Onorato appoints these folksÖand he's got some kind of plan in mindÖ.we don't know what it isÖ
Strahosky: bringing more business to Allegheny County. That's Dan Onorato's planÖhe wants the money and he wants the businessÖhe doesn't care about the health of the residentsÖhe doesn't care what kind of businesses come in. He doesn't care about the existing businesses and what kind of pollution they emit.

Weisberg: US Steel's Clairton Coke Works continues to violate the counthy health department consent order to limit emissions. US Steel has paid $750,000 in pollution fines to the county in the past 15 months. Plans to upgrade its coke works remain on hold. In the meantime, the EPA is planning to install ambient air monitoring facilities at schools throughout the county, including those in Clairton.

For the AF, Iím DW.