Pittsburgh air worst in nation

Pittsburgh smog

Courtesy Don Gibbon


Coal-fired power a major contributor

By Nancy Parks

In 2007, Rand McNally rated Pittsburgh the country’s most livable city, an honor that area residents celebrated. One year later and the city has been rated number one again, this time for the dubious distinction of having the worst air quality in the nation. According to the American Lung Association’s (ALA) recently released State of the Air Report: 2008, Pittsburgh’s particulate pollution has surpassed even Los Angeles California, a city famous for its smog.

The results of the report are hardly surprising. Pennsylvania releases more pollutants into the air from our coal-fired power plants than any other state except Texas and Ohio. In addition to our own state’s 38 coal-fired plants, Pennsylvanian’s are down-wind of dozens of coal-fired plants in Ohio and West Virginia, as shown in a map of regional coal-fired plants which was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Chapter.

As the most polluted city in the country, Pittsburgh’s citizens are exposed to devastatingly high exposures of fine particle soot. While Los Angeles has aggressively fought its air pollution, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have failed to protect the more than two million people living in western Pennsylvania from short term exposures to dangerous levels of fine particle pollution.”

The American Lung Association calculates that in the U.S., approximately 24,000 people die annually, and prematurely, from the effects of coal-fired power plant pollution—a number that is likely to increase as new plants come online in the U.S., China, and India.  Particulate pollution from these plants are easily breathed into the deepest parts of the lungs, triggering asthma, heart attacks, strokes, and lung cancer, making it a major cause of premature death. Allegheny County’s 1.2 million residents now have the highest risk in the U.S. for short term exposures to particulates over a 24 hour period and the region’s 24,000 children with pediatric asthma will suffer the consequence.

But Pittsburgh and its surrounding communities don’t stand alone. According to the ALA report, five out of six Pennsylvanians live in metropolitan areas that received a failing grade for air quality. In total, eighteen of our state’s twenty-one graded counties received an “F” for short-term levels of pollution. Other Pennsylvania counties that made the report’s top 25 most polluted include Washington and Cumberland Counties.

Washington County has more than:

  • 3900 children with diagnosed pediatric asthma,
  • 14,000 adults diagnosed with asthma, and
  • 7,400 residents diagnosed with chronic bronchitis.

Cumberland County has more than:

  • 4200 children with diagnosed pediatric asthma
  • 15,700 adults diagnosed with asthma, and
  • 7,800 people diagnosed with chronic bronchitis.

In addition, the Allentown-Bethlehem, Philadelphia, and State College regions all ranked within the ALA’s 25 worst list. For longer term exposures to particulates, Pittsburgh/Allegheny County ranked second nationally and Beaver County, York County and Lancaster County all finished within the top 25 counties exposing their citizens to unhealthy levels of particulates annually.  

The Sierra Club believes that Pennsylvania must aggressively reduce the ozone and particulate pollution from its coal fired power plants. Unfortunately, our state has been targeted by the industry as a “preferred location” for new coal-burning facilities and at least four new generating plants—Wellington, Shade, River Hill, and Beech Hollow—are in the permitting pipeline. In addition, the state has been selected by Waste Management, Inc. as the site of a new liquid coal plant. In response to the resurgence of coal in the state, the Sierra Club is working on several fronts and is currently part of a coalition fighting to halt the construction of a proposed 525-megawatt, waste coal plant in Nemacolin.

Although his administration has been pushing for alternative energy development, Governor Rendell is not shying away from coal, which many still believe to be an economic lifeline for residents. At the National Governors Association’s meeting in February, the Governor declared that with clean-coal technology “Coal states would be back in business big time, and the economies would flourish.” Given that the coal industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars to promote their outdated and dirty power source, it’s not surprising that the Governor would be misled with false promises of “clean coal.” But unless he and his legislature turn away from new coal-fired development, Pennsylvania will be locked into a dirty energy future.


Nancy Parks is the chair of the Chapter's air quality committee.