“The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”

Pennsylvania Constitution — Article I  Section 27


Air pollution is a hazard Pittsburgh-area residents have been living with (and dying from) for a long, long time. Fossil fuel extraction and use to generate electricity and propel manufacturing industries have created a legacy that pits economic progress against environmental stewardship. The first commercial oil well was drilled in western Pennsylvania (Titusville) in 1859 and conventional oil and gas development flourished. But a hundred years before that, coal was “King”, with the first coal mine in the region established in the city of Pittsburgh on Mount Washington (“Coal Hill”) in 1760. The presence of abundant coal reserves and the proximity to the city’s three rivers brought about a new industry, and, by the middle of the 19th century, transformed Pittsburgh from “Iron City” to the “Steel City”. Coke plants, steel mills, and foundries sprang up along the banks of the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers, creating wealth for some, jobs for many, and steel that helped build this nation and others. But there was a downside to all this industrial activity taking place in a relatively small geographic area. Burning coal and making coke and steel creates large amounts of hazardous byproducts according to the laws of chemistry and physics. When heavy industries use the rivers and the atmosphere as open sewers (for lack of a better term), many of these byproducts become biochemically toxic and biologically harmful to the aquatic life in rivers and the health of humans and other terrestrial life forms.

In the final quarter of the last century, much of the region’s steel industry folded or moved away. Steel mills with their attached coal-fired generators were torn down. Newer manufacturers that came in to fill the void had to comply with a new “sheriff” in town: The Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA was established in 1970 during the Nixon administration, and new laws that aimed to promote cleaner air and water in order to protect the public’s health were established. Large, visible particulate matter and harmful sulfur dioxide were “scrubbed” from coal’s towering smokestacks. Lead was removed as an additive in gasoline and catalytic converters in cars forced a dramatic decline of emissions. The beginning of this century saw major advances in energy efficiency in our houses, appliances, lighting, and automobiles, helping diminish the importance of coal in meeting society’s energy demands.

The result is that today in 2018, the air sure does look clearer. But as we discovered yesterday, looks can be deceiving. The large soot particles have indeed been removed by economic necessity and environmental regulations. But the smaller, invisible particles (PM2.5 — particulate matter 2.5 micrometers and less) and vapors emitted from extracting and burning fossil fuels that cause the most harm to people’s health remain. The arrival of some new industries in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area has in fact exacerbated the air quality problem. The area has experienced an explosion of unconventional oil and gas drilling into deep layers of ancient shale deposits that are hydraulically fractured (fracked) using enormous amounts of freshwater, sand, and chemicals — many of which are carcinogenic, teratogenic, endocrine-disrupting, neurotoxic, and physiologically damaging. “Mini-industrial complexes” consisting of various phases of infrastructure — diesel trucks and generators on well pads hosting dozens of individual wells, pipelines, compressor stations to move the product along, huge processing facilities, transportation centers, underground gas-storage sites, landfills, injection wells — all of which leak inadvertently and are vented on purpose into the air we all breathe 12-24 times a minute (depending on age, activity level, and health status), every minute of every hour of every day. Most of these emissions — and there are more than the just fine particles and vapors we’ve discussed over the past two days — are invisible. Some you can smell and some you can’t. But most of the components of air pollution from oil and gas operations (as well as coal) have been shown to be harmful to people exposed to unhealthy doses of them. And today, because of the proximity to the Marcellus Shale gas patch, a brand new petrochemical hub is being built just a few miles downriver and upwind from Downtown Pittsburgh across the Allegheny County line in Beaver County, beginning with the first of several ethane crackers planned for a region that shares one air-shed. The chemical byproducts produced from making plastics are well-known and completely predictable in terms of their nature, the amounts, and the health impacts associated with exposure to their emissions. Wherever fossil fuels are refined and plastics are made, “Cancer Alleys” surely follow. As we also learned yesterday, the cancer risk of residents living in Allegheny County is already in the top 2% of U.S. counties.

The air might look clearer but it’s not a whole lot cleaner, as the data coming in from the American Lung Association’s State of the Air — 2018 report, from the World Health Organization’s global research, and from other environmental monitors might suggest. Moreover, it appears that air quality in Allegheny County and the Pittsburgh metropolitan area is about to get much worse with the buildout of fracking and petrochemical infrastructure. And one thing we surely know in the ninth year of the second decade of the twenty-first century: The closer one lives to pollution sources, and the more time one spends breathing polluted air, the worse one’s health becomes. There is no debate about that.