'The air we breathe'
On the 40th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, southwestern Pennsylvania is not celebrating.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010 - 12:06
NEVELL ISLAND: One of many areas in southwestern Pennsylvania where mortality rates were found to be significantly above expected. (Photo: Chris Tittle)
Earlier this year, as the EPA was celebrating the successes of 40 years of air quality improvement under the Clean Air Act, a very different story was being told in western Pennsylvania. After decades of continued industrial air pollution, the region's air quality is still significantly below federal standards.
In a special report by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette running all this week, a year-long investigation into regional mortality rates has raised some serious questions about links between the region's air quality and clusters of disease and death. The exhaustive analysis by Post-Gazette reporters Don Hopey and David Templeton highlights striking correlations between high death rates from lung cancer and heart and respiratory diseases and significant point sources of air pollution throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.
Though the study has acknowledged statistical limitations — such as the inability to factor in lifestyle and socioeconomic factors — the implications of the report are clear: air quality still represents a significant health risk to long-time residents of the area. More pertinently, the report delves into the failures of state and federal regulators to effectively enforce environmental law. Sadly, it is the largely blue-collar population of southwestern Pennsylvania that has paid the price for these failures through significantly increased mortality rates and a growing frustration with their government's inability — or unwillingness — to do much about it.
Using federal and state environmental agency data, investigators found that nearly all of southwestern Pennsylvania's coal-fired power plants have been in violation of federal air or water pollution laws over the last three years. The majority of power companies implicated in these violations have paid relatively small penalties though, and several have remained persistent violators despite actions by the EPA and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to fine them.
The agencies responsible for regulating large polluters have clearly been aware of the problem for some time. However, their inability to effectively shape the behavior of power companies and other large polluters remains unacceptable. Budget cuts to DEP have surely played some role in their limited aggressiveness — a situation that threatens to get progressively worse under Governor-elect Tom Corbett.
The Republican has publicly questioned the mission of DEP and called for it to strengthen relationships with the very industries it is charged with regulating. And more than 50 percent of the governor-elect's "energy and environment" transition team, created to help develop Corbett's policies as he prepares to take office, consists of industry lobbyists and lawyers. Seriously.
But back to the Clean Air Act. The Post-Gazette's report reveals some disturbing disease and mortality trends clustered near significant point source emitters — entire neighborhoods racked by cancer and lung disease.
While the laws supposedly address these potential "cluster" cases, the provisions seem woefully inadequate: investigations are based on citizen reports, not active data analysis; only one disease is investigated in each cluster case, when most pollutants can cause a range of diseases, making causation hard to prove; and ultimately, the onus is on state investigators to prove a direct scientific link between unusually high incidence of disease and a specific pollutant, not the other way around. This proves extremely difficult given all the factors at play and ultimately impractical. Why should large polluters be given the benefit of the doubt over the failing health of large numbers of citizens?
Despite 50 or more "cluster" reports every year, the Pennsylvania Department of Health has yet to identify the cause of even one. It seems there is work to be done here.