News Analysis: Industrial Pollution Hits Home: Air, Ash, and Odors

The impacts on air quality from power plants and other sources of pollution have kept the Pittsburgh metropolitan area at the top of the country's dirtiest air rankings released by the American Lung Association--though the metro area did move from the very worst to number three. And foul odors stemming from natural gas drilling operations have caught the notice of state environmental regulators. The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray joins host Jennifer Szweda Jordan to discuss these developments.

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OPEN: Energy is a dirty business. The impacts on air quality from power plant and other sources of pollution have kept the Pittsburgh metropolitan area at the top of the country's dirtiest air rankings released by the American Lung Association--though the metro area did move from the very worst to number three. And foul odors stemming from natural gas drilling operations have caught the notice of state environmental regulators. The Department of Environmental Protection has moved forward on monitoring air quality. The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray is here with me to discuss these developments.

Ann, it seems like here in Pittsburgh we've been used to being at the top--certainly in football and hockey anyway. Who beat us out of our infamous distinction of worst air.

A: Two communities in California: Bakersfield and Fresno-Madera.

J: And how does the ALA judge air quality in the "State of the Air" report? Are we only slightly improved because other areas have gotten worse.

A: No, Pittsburgh metro had its best rankings ever, even though we received failing grades for the amounts of ground-level ozone in the air. The lung association ranks communities by the levels of particulate pollution that the Environmental Protection Agency recorded from 2006 to 2008. The specific ranking on which we come in third is the Short-term Particle Pollution standard--that's tiny particles of soot. We're fifth worse in year-Round Particle Pollution.

J: Every year when these rankings come out, the Allegheny County Health Department, which is in charge of air pollution control in the county says the American Lung Association's methodology is flawed. They say it's unfair that the lung association considers each region's dirtiest monitor--in Allegheny County's case, the Liberty/Clairton monitor to rank metropolitan air quality. This is the site of U-S Steel's Clairton Coke works--one of the largest in the world. Are we hearing the same explanation this year?

A: Yes. Allegheny County Health Department spokesman Guillermo Cole admits that the Liberty/Clairton pollution is unacceptable. But Cole says that all the rest of Allegheny County's air monitors comply with federal standards, whereas in othe metro areas pollution may be more widespread and not so localized like it is in Liberty/Clairton. Now Cole does promise that the air quality all around was improved in 2009. There's been a decline in industrial output from power plants and other polluters and that that may be reflected in next year's State of the Air report.

J: But other cities could improve as well, couldn't they?

A: That's true--there's no guarantee Pittsburgh won't continue to remain on this list of polluted cities.

J: There may also be new sources of air pollution in Pennsylvania.The public and state regulators are beginning to pay attention to possible air pollution associated with Marcellus Shale gas development. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is responding to complaints about odors connected to Marcellus sites in Washington and Greene Counties. What is the DEP going to do?

A: DEP is going to start air sampling near some of these sites. And not just well pads. The agency says it will analyze air quality downwind from active drill sites, AND gas compressor stations, well heads, gas well flares and wastewater impoundments or ponds that are connected to Marcellus Shale drilling.

J: In the story you did last week, you focused on a Washington County woman who was complaining about odors from a Marcellus wastewater pond.

A: Yes. She said the odors from the open wastewater pond about 200 feet from her house were giving her and neighbors headaches.The DEP will check for volatile organic compounds, ozone, nitrogen oxides, hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide.

J: Let's talk about some of the gas operations. What do gas compressor stations do?

A: Gas compressor stations are located near gas lines. They compress the gas and push it through pipes under great pressure so it can be moved for long distances. In the natural gas industry, compressor stations operate under a general permit that limits pollutants by incorporating best available technologies. A DEP "general permit" requires no air quality testing.

J: Have there been odor complaints from people who live near of the compressors?

A: There have been lots of complaints to the DEP about two compressors in Washington County. A spokeswoman says the agency will test the air near one of those stations.

J: So if the DEP can isolate the odors and connect them to specific gas drilling sites, what are the legal consequences for drilling operators?

A: Any entity creating odors may be fined up to $25,000 per day under the Pennsylvania Air Pollution Control Act.

J: In other news about problems that can stem from the energy industry, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing the first-ever national rules to ensure the safe disposal and management of coal ash from coal-fired power plants. What will be included?

A:The action will ensure for the first time that liners and groundwater monitoring, are in place at new and existing impoundments to protect groundwater and human health. The proposed regulations will ensure stronger oversight of the structural integrity of impoundments in order to prevent accidents like the one at Kingston, Tennessee. The proposed regulations also will promote forms of recycling coal ash, known as beneficial uses.

J: Thanks, Ann. If you missed Ann's story last week about reusing wastewater at Marcellus drilling and fracking sites, go to our website, alleghenyfront.org We'll also have links to related articles about odors from Marcellus compressors as well as a link to the PA Air Pollution Control Act.