PennEnvironment report highlights Clean Air Act enforcement challenges in Pittsburgh

Media Contacts
Zachary Barber

Amid search for new head of local air quality regulator, a new report recommends best practices

PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

[Pittsburgh, PA]– A new study by PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group documents how decades of poor enforcement of air quality rules by the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) enabled industrial facilities to pollute the region’s air. The report, entitled Cutting Through the Smoke, found that ACHD has enabled pollution through slow permitting and weak enforcement. The report, coming on the heels of the departure of ACHD’s Director, makes recommendations for how the new Director can improve enforcement techniques and in turn better protect residents from dangerous air pollution.

“When ACHD finds a health problem at a restaurant, it shuts the restaurant down. Yet for decades, ACHD allowed polluters to go right on harming our health,” said Zachary Barber, Field Organizer with PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center. “There are simple, time-tested enforcement practices used across the country that, if implemented in Allegheny County, could go a long way towards reining in dangerous pollution.”

Key findings included:

  • ACHD allowed major polluters to operate without required pollution permits — Of the 32 industrial facilities in Allegheny County required to hold federally required operating permits, one out of three have either been running with an outdated and expired pollution permit or have never been issued the required pollution permit in the first place. Clean Air Act permits are the first steps in protecting the public from pollution, providing critical tools for enforcement and transparency.
  • ACHD favored weak enforcement actions and polluter-friendly legal settlements, which failed to halt illegal air pollution –Many violations continued even after repeated enforcement efforts from ACHD. ACHD took more than 80 formal and informal enforcement actions against U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works over the last 30 years (an average of 2.7 per year), but the facility continues to illegally pollute on a regular basis. Harsco Metals continues to illegally blanket the surrounding community in dust a decade after the Health Department’s first attempt to clean it up.
  • Some signs of improvement – ACHD has made recent steps toward a tougher approach to enforcement, increasing penalties for illegal pollution and moving away from voluntary settlements. The department’s $2.7 million penalty against U.S. Steel and its willingness to consider shutdown of coke making at Clairton Works after a recent fire that knocked out pollution control equipment are among several recent steps to increase accountability for polluters.

“In this region, we discuss the importance of sustainability a LOT – it’s time for all officials to do their part in reducing pollution and saving our livelihood,” said Mayor Marita Garrett of Wilkinsburg. “As I will always say, an individual’s zip code should never be a predictor of one’s health outcome. Air pollution, our environment is tied into equity and we continue to see the communities of lower socioeconomic status hit the hardest. At the very minimum, we all deserve quality of life.”

Based on these findings, the report recommends that ACHD implement the following best practices for enforcement of clean air laws:

  • Issue timely, health-based Clean Air Act permits — ACHD must clear the permit backlog and issue future permits and renewals on time. Permits need to set strict, health-based emissions limits and require best available control technology.
  • Pursue aggressive enforcement action to ensure it doesn’t “pay to pollute” — ACHD should pursue tougher enforcement, including fines large enough to remove the financial benefit from breaking the law and increasing penalties for any violations that continue after the enforcement action. Additionally, ACHD should require polluters to make the necessary upgrades to protect public health and shut down any facility that can’t or won’t comply with the law.
  • Expand air quality monitoring — Expanded monitoring can help to improve enforcement and assure accountability. ACHD should continue successful monitoring programs like the Lawrenceville metals study and deploy more monitors around major sources to better track emissions.
  • Work with the public and other agencies — ACHD should partner with public, advocacy groups, technical experts and other government agencies to bring extra resources to bear in the fight for clean air. Greater input from stakeholders inevitably leads to better permitting and uncovers challenges and potential future threats.

“In the past, ACHD officials have been too quick to settle with repeat industrial polluters, and the fines issued don’t appear to deter future—and in some instances, ongoing—violations,” said Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP). “If we ever hope to move off the ‘worst air quality lists’ that our county is so used to being featured on, then we must ensure industry gets the message that polluting is both financially and politically untenable here. We hope the incoming director of the Allegheny County Health Department takes an aggressive approach to enforcement; one that tells potential polluters, ‘Not on my watch.’”

The report comes as Allegheny County is conducting its search for a new ACHD Director. The previous director, Dr. Karen Hacker, left at the end of July for a position with the Centers for Disease Control. The Board of Health is overseeing a search for her replacement.

“We hope that the next director of the Allegheny County Health Department will commit to the enforcement road map laid out in our report,” said Barber.


The PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center is a statewide environmental non-profit group dedicated to protecting our water, air and open spaces. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision-makers, and help the public make their voices heard in local, state and national debates over the quality of our environment and our lives. For more information about this or our other projects, visit