Clearing the Air: An Earth Day Progress Report

Hard work and a pandemic boosted the Pittsburgh region’s air quality — but the job isn’t over.


Pittsburgh is a city of contrasts, from the character of individual neighborhoods and its architectural and cultural diversity to its industrial past and tech-focused future. The city and the region make for an eclectic — even marketable — mix of the traditional and the modern.

Stand at the confluence of the three rivers at Point State Park on a spring morning, with a light mist rising from the water, or ride from neighborhood to neighborhood on the city’s growing network of bike paths, and it’s easy to see why people are bullish on the city. But start your day stepping out of the front door of a house in Clairton, with smokestacks from U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works as the backdrop, and you might find a decidedly different experience.

“It’s one of the most eye-catching ironies or contradictions out there,” says Zachary Barber, a clean air advocate for the nonprofit PennEnvironment, discussing the juxtaposition between “livable city” status and having air quality that the American Lung Association ranked among the worst in the country in its 2020 report. “We know Pittsburgh has come a long way. But that doesn’t mean the problem has gone away.”

In the month that includes Earth Day, however, there are reasons for optimism — and they don’t necessarily depend on an environmentally proactive occupant of the Oval Office.

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Pittsburgh has made strides in recent years in terms of air quality and the move to cleaner energy. Looking at 20-year records of air quality as it relates to fine-particulate matter and other pollutants — which lead to health problems and global warming — shows significant improvement. In late January, the Allegheny Health Department announced that preliminary data for all of the county’s air quality monitors met the federal standard for the first time.

“That’s historic,” county executive Rich Fitzgerald says. “Even as we’ve gotten better, we’ve never been able to have all monitors in compliance.”

While environmental advocates such as Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the air quality advocacy group Breathe Project, acknowledge the improvement, they’re also quick to put the preliminary data in context.

“We are under very unusual circumstances,” he says, considering the potential effects of the pandemic restrictions. “That has resulted in lower air quality impact. We are at least a decade behind the entire country in meeting the standard that was set a decade ago. In some ways, it’s celebrating coming in last place.”

Fitzgerald and Allegheny County Health Department Deputy Director of Environmental Health Jim Kelly both acknowledge the impact of COVID-related reductions but also counter the concern.

“It’s not like we’re in compliance and the work stops,” Fitzgerald says, adding that he believes the county would have met the standard with or without the pandemic.

Traditionally, air quality data from the health department credits “on-road mobile sources” for roughly 25 percent of emissions contributing to pollution. Industrial, commercial and residential air pollution combines for close to 60 percent.



The Mon Valley region includes two U.S. Steel facilities widely credited as among the largest contributors to poor air quality, the Clairton Coke Works and the Edgar Thomson Steel Works.

In February 2020, U.S. Steel reached an agreement with the health department to invest $200 million in improvements to the Clairton plant, which the county says is expected to have a significant impact on air pollution. U.S. Steel also previously announced a separate $1.5 billion plan to invest in upgrades to modernize both the Clairton and Edgar Thomson plants, but a timeline for that plan is unclear.

Reached for comment, U.S. Steel spokesperson Amanda Malkowski says, “The Mon Valley is still a top priority for U.S. Steel.” 

The company hired additional employees during the pandemic, in part to address some of the improvements, she adds.

Addressing the bigger picture of the region’s air quality, Kelly remains optimistic, citing a potential for renewed policy efforts by the EPA.

“As far as leadership in the EPA the last four years, there wasn’t a lot there. Some of our enforcement efforts weren’t really supported,” he says. “The EPA was almost idling during that time. We weren’t getting a lot of help. I know the newer administration has promised more of a science-based approach. There seems to be a lot of energy there. We’re excited about that.”

Fitzgerald and environmental advocates were openly critical of the Trump administration’s environmental policy.

“We weren’t going down the same road as the Trump administration,” Fitzgerald says, citing local efforts to address air quality and greenhouse gas emissions. “Quite frankly, I think they were in denial when it came to climate change.”

Taking the assessment a little further, Rob Altenburg, director and environmental consultant with the nonprofit advocacy group PennFuture Energy Center, says, “Trump’s environmental agenda was based on indiscriminate rollbacks of regulations. It was really based on lies and wishful thinking. Telling people he could save the coal industry by cutting regulations was ridiculous.”

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At the end of January, the county announced an agreement with Rye Development that will see a hydroelectric power facility constructed on the Ohio River, as part of the existing Emsworth main channel dam. The county entered a 35-year power purchase agreement with Rye to buy electricity to power county buildings, including the jail and courthouse. A statement from the county says it will be the annual equivalent of powering 3,400 households. Fitzgerald says over the course of the agreement, the clean energy generated is expected to reduce carbon pollution by an estimated 1 million tons. The hydro plant is expected to be online as early as mid-2023, according to the county.

“We have been working on this for over a year,” Fitzgerald says. “Regardless of who was going to be the new president, we were going to put this plan in place in which we’re going to use the rivers as power.”

He added, however, that he believes a Biden administration could further benefit climate-related initiatives, while also praising private investment.

“You see movement both from the governmental side coming from the Biden administration on down to the local governments like ours. But you also see private industry, our corporate community, taking this very seriously,” he says. “Pittsburgh is in a good place.”

In 2018, the University of Pittsburgh signed on to a similar agreement for a planned hydro plant on the Allegheny River near the Highland Park Bridge, also with Rye Development. Additionally, city transit is adding electric buses, which Fitzgerald says will significantly reduce diesel emissions.

The green energy push continues to grow in the region. Community College of Allegheny County announced earlier this year that it plans to add a large solar panel area to the roof of its north campus facility. CCAC officials said it may save them $27,000 a year and roughly $750,000 over the course of their 28-year agreement with the BAI Group.

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Pittsburgh International Airport is also getting into the clean energy market with a combination of solar panels and natural gas power plants, expected to power the entire airport through an independent microgrid. When complete, the microgrid will include nearly 8,000 solar panels and five natural gas generators, the equivalent of powering roughly 13,700 homes.

“It’ll be the largest solar field in Allegheny County,” Fitzgerald says. The project is expected to be completed this year.

“We have a huge solar resource in Pennsylvania that we are not exploiting,” Altenburg with PennFuture says. “Massachusetts is producing much more solar than we are. We are not cloudier than Massachusetts. Solar needs daylight. It doesn’t need bright sunny skies”

Altenburg, a former Pennsylvania DEP air quality forecaster and energy consultant, also acknowledges the overall improvement of the region’s air quality.

“We’ve been making progress for a number of reasons. A big one is that coal plants have been retiring,” he says. “Saying coal plants are retiring because of environmental regulations is ridiculous. They’re retiring because they can’t compete with [natural] gas.”

That’s a trend that is evident locally. The Bruce Mansfield coal plant run by FirstEnergy Solutions in Shippingport — once the state’s largest facility — closed in November 2019. The president of FirstEnergy at the time, Don Moul, blamed the inability to compete with low-cost natural gas.

The Cheswick Generating Station, credited as one of the county’s highest polluters, is also seeing a downward trend. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration data provided by Altenburg, the Cheswick plant reportedly operated at around 56 percent capacity in 2009. By 2019, it had fallen to around 16 percent capacity.

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While Allegheny County has shown air quality progress regardless of the presidential administration, President Joe Biden’s day-one energy policy raised some eyebrows among oil and gas industry representatives in Pennsylvania, which ranks second in the country behind Texas in natural gas production, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

“The number two executive order put union workers out of work,” Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesperson John Sutter says. “The first couple of executive orders could have a chilling effect on investment.”

On his first day in office, Biden revoked permits for the Keystone XL Pipeline, the proposed gas line from Alberta, Canada, to Nebraska. (It’s worth noting that the less-direct original Keystone Pipeline already links Alberta to Texas.) The new line would have been able to transport more crude oil to refineries in the United States. Biden also issued a pause on drilling permits on federal lands. Natural gas industry representatives charge that, together, the measures are cause for concern to the industry.

In a written statement regarding the decisions, Marcellus Shale Coalition President David Callahan says, “We share the concerns from union and building trade as well as bipartisan county, state and congressional leaders about some of President Biden’s harshly punitive actions.”

Callahan calls the natural gas industry essential for communities and local job growth, praising its role in clean low-cost energy.

While industry advocates and some media outlets have charged that the cancellation of the pipeline permit could mean a loss of over 10,000 jobs over the course of the multi-year project, XL President Richard Prior says it would immediately impact around 1,000. For comparison, the state of Pennsylvania saw roughly 500,000 fewer jobs due to COVID shutdowns when comparing job numbers from February to December 2020, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry.

Figures from the state department of labor already showed a significant decline in gas extraction jobs since the industry boom in 2014 up until 2019 — prior to the pandemic. One estimate showed a decline as high as 25 percent in the extraction sector. State figures show around 20,000 to 26,000 jobs directly attributable to oil and gas extraction and associated labor and transportation. The state DEP Energy and Employment Report for 2020 shows a much higher job tally when adding distribution, power generation and other industry-related sectors: Natural gas, coal and petroleum jobs account for approximately 58,000 jobs in the state.




While industry representatives and environmental advocates may disagree on the job number, the need for natural gas in conjunction with renewables is clear. It’s widely accepted that natural gas replacing coal has led to cleaner air and, as with the airport, it can work in conjunction with renewables.

“As far as greenhouse gases go, a coal plant emits about twice as much as a gas plant,” Altenburg says. “Gas generation is going to be a reality on the grid for some time to come.”

What causes concern among environmental advocates is the potential pollution associated with gas extraction, including the release of excess methane through leaks, venting and abandoned wells. On a 20-year timeline, methane is a significantly more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The Trump administration rolled back restrictions in that area as well.

Industry representatives such as Sutter suggest that the industry is conscious of the issue and addressing it. “There’s a clear economic and environmental incentive,” Sutter says. “If you look at the data on methane emissions, it’s moving downward.”

The DEP’s 2019 Oil and Gas Annual Report logged 18,975 compliance inspections of unconventional well sites — the category fracking wells fall under. It found 985 violations in that category, more with conventional wells. The agency collected $4.1 million in penalties in 2019 for violations, down from $9.7 million in 2016. The state issued 17,389 permits for unconventional wells between 2012 and 2019. The DEP reports that 7,430 were drilled in that time. In 2020, State Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced a grand jury report that uncovered “systematic failure by government agencies in overseeing the fracking industry.”

Environmental advocates hope the EPA, under Biden, provides more guidance.

But Fitzgerald and county deputy health director Kelly remain optimistic about future air quality in the region and the benefit of the close proximity to gas sources.

“Overall the majority of the industry is fairly proactive. They understand the impact of their emissions,” Kelly says. “Not all industry takes that approach. Some industries are just reactive. They have to be told what to do.” 

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