MEDIA CONTACT: Lou Takacs, Communications Director
(Pittsburgh) May 17, 2016 An audit by Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner indicates that the use of negotiated settlements known as consent decrees has failed to result in major air pollution sources coming into compliance with regulations. Rather than compelling significant reductions in emissions, these agreements have allowed the operators of polluting facilities to pay agreed-upon penalties while they continue to pollute at non-compliant levels.
“Instead of bringing harmful emissions to within regulatory limits and realizing the benefits such reductions would bring to the health of Allegheny County residents, major polluters have essentially been allowed to write their own ticket and continue to pollute,” Wagner said. “When companies consider fines simply part of the cost of doing business, of course their performance does not improve.”
Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designates at least part of Allegheny County as in non-attainment for three of six criteria pollutants: ozone, fine particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide. In 2013, Pittsburgh ranked below a dozen other benchmark metropolitan areas in both ozone and fine particulate matter measurements, according to EPA.
“If we are truly to leave behind the popular perception of Pittsburgh as the ‘smoky city’ and make our region the ‘most livable’ for all of our residents, we must work to make the facts match the rhetoric,” Wagner said.
The audit determined that understaffing in the Allegheny County Health Department’s (ACHD) Air Quality program has likely promoted the use of consent decrees rather than pursuing litigation which could have succeeded in reducing pollution levels. ACHD has generally had only one attorney on staff to negotiate and litigate air quality non-compliance, though a second attorney was recently hired.
For violations which have not been subject to consent agreements, the audit found that while federal regulations allow for increasing fines for repeat non-compliance up to a $25,000 per day maximum, ACHD has not fully employed this tool to compel reductions, leaving fines below the maximum penalty even as violations continue.
“If the rules continue to be broken after one punishment, then more serious penalties are warranted. Children are held to this standard, but not corporations? It’s time for the Health Department to get serious about companies that persist in breaking the law,” Wagner said.
The audit also found that a lack of adequate technological, organizational and human resources within the Air Quality Program resulted in significant backlogs in permit applications. A backlog of more than 200 initial or renewal permit applications existed, and 18 pollution sources were in operation based on installation permits without ever even applying for an operating permit. One facility was operating with its installation permit pending since 2009.
“While enforcement is a paramount duty of the Air Quality program, it also has a responsibility to industry to provide certainty and a stable regulatory environment. It is failing in this respect when permits are not issued for months or years on end,” Wagner said. “While these delays are not preventing companies from setting up shop and operating, they do send a poor message to manufacturers which may consider locating in Allegheny County.”
The ACHD’s current program management software is unable to even produce a list of all outstanding applications. This software also failed to generate bills for more than $7,000 in administrative fees which should have been collected by ACHD during 2014.
The audit also found that Air Quality program enforcement staff does not adequately document its evaluations of reports submitted by pollution sources so that verification may occur by management or interested outside parties.
“I believe firmly in ‘trust but verify.’ A signature on a form doesn’t tell me anything about what my children are breathing. The public needs to know how submissions from polluters are evaluated so that there can be confidence that the information we have is accurate,” Wagner said.
Despite available financial resources, the ACHD has not hired new monitoring staff until longstanding employees have retired or otherwise left their positions, preventing on-the-job training by experienced staff and the continuity of institutional knowledge. Furthermore, once vacancies have occurred they have often not been filled quickly.
“While there are always financial and practical limitations on government, I believe as an elected official and as a mother that investments in ensuring the quality of our air are essential, and that making improvements in monitoring should be a foremost priority for the County,” Wagner said.
The full Analysis of the Allegheny County Health Department’s Air Quality Program For the Period January 1, 2014 through December 31, 2014 can be viewed here.