Old diesel equipment still spewing soot into Pittsburgh's air

Pittsburgh's Clean Air Act not implemented

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March 8, 2013: A correction has been made to this article.

Morry Feldman downs two horse pills with breakfast. Then, he uses four different sprays. Two puffs into the mouth.  Two into the nose. Repeat at dinner.

Feldman, 59, has severe asthma and allergies. And Pittsburgh is among the worst places he could live or work because of the region’s poor air quality.

“If I miss a dose, I start to get sick,” said Feldman, a senior account executive at WQED Multimedia.

Feldman is one of nearly 97,000 adults in Allegheny County with asthma.

The county received F’s in the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2012 study.

Among the reasons cited by experts for the region’s poor air quality: diesel fumes.

Morry Feldman, who has severe asthma and allergies, and people like him are among the most vulnerable to 'dirty diesel' emissions. (Photo by Emily DeMarco/PublicSource)

The Pittsburgh City Council passed a local law in 2011 requiring construction companies to retrofit equipment that runs on diesel fuel in order to reduce emissions. But, to date, no dozers, diggers or dump trucks have had to comply.

Called the Clean Air Act of 2010, the local law focused on construction sites that received public dollars. If the development’s budget was larger than $2.5 million and it received at least $250,000 in public subsidies, it  would have to retrofit a percentage of its diesel equipment.

Regulations for the ordinance haven’t been finalized, making it unenforceable.

Supporters of the ordinance have cried foul.

“If we truly want to be the most livable city, we have to contend with our air pollution,” said Rachel Filippini, the executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution, known as GASP.  “And one way to do that is to clean up construction vehicles.”

GASP was part of a coalition of health, environmental, faith, industry, and labor organizations that helped to draft the legislation.

Small, but deadly

The Environmental Protection Agency has set standards for new diesel engines, but it’s the old engines that produce what’s known as ‘dirty diesel’ fumes. A typical diesel engine has a life span of 20 to 30 years.

It is widely accepted that dirty diesel exhaust contains tiny particles of soot, also known as black carbon. And that the smallest of these particles can go straight into the bloodstream and are linked to cancer, asthma and stroke.

In addition, the diesel exhaust contains nitrogen oxides, which, when released into the atmosphere on hot days, create ozone, a powerful irritant that can cause chemical burns in the lungs.

Children, the elderly, and people with chronic lung and heart conditions are among the most vulnerable to dirty diesel’s impact. And the workers who operate diesel equipment are the first to breathe the harmful emissions.

The city council passed the local legislation requiring developers to curb diesel emissions, in part, because Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods are densely packed, with schools and playgrounds often near construction sites.

If the legislation had been in effect, one construction site that would need to comply would be Bakery Square 2.0, a development on Penn Ave. that broke ground in January 2013. The $100-million project is the sister site to Bakery Square 1.0, home to Google’s Pittsburgh offices, high-end shops and a hotel.

With the help of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and the Urban Redevelopment Authority, according to a press release from the mayor’s office, the development was awarded about $2 million in federal funds. The development was recently awarded $4 million from the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett.

Bakery Square 2.0 borders The Ellis School, a private, all-girls academy, and Mellon Park.

The girls at the Ellis School who have asthma could be directly affected by the diesel emissions while Bakery Square 2.0 construction is underway, said Dr. Fernando Holguin, the assistant director at the University of Pittsburgh’s Asthma Institute.

“Maybe some children will wheeze a little more...and some kids may end up in hospital,” Dr. Holguin said.

Representatives from the project’s development company, Walnut Capital, did not return phone calls or emails requesting comment. A representative from The Ellis School said she didn't know enough about the ordinance to comment.

Just a piece of paper

‘Clean construction’ laws have sprouted across the country. Pittsburgh’s was modeled after New York City’s version, called Local Law 77.

New York’s version passed in 2003 and took about a year to implement. It also required convincing industry officials that the retrofits wouldn’t cause warranties to be voided or engines to explode, said Gerry Kelpin of that city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Kelpin’s team is in charge of enforcing the law.

City leadership, including The New York City Council and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, strongly supported the law, Kelpin said.

Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto, who was the main sponsor of the ordinance, gave a copy of New York City’s regulations to Pittsburgh’s Law Department.

Meetings concerning the regulations to implement the ordinance have been going on for more than a year, according to Peduto’s office.

Big projects, no retrofitting requirements

These are some of the projects with public financing that have been announced since the Clean Air Act was passed by the Pittsburgh City Council and signed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. All of these projects would have been required to retrofit a percentage of their diesel equipment used at the construction site if the regulations were in place.

However, the regulations have not been finalized, said Daniel Regan, Pittsburgh’s solicitor.

Regan said they are waiting to hear from Peduto’s office. Peduto is running for mayor.

“We weren’t involved, nor were we asked to be involved, in drafting the legislation,” Regan said, adding they they thought it was important for the sponsors to review it.

When PublicSource asked about the implementation of the ordinance at a public event, Ravenstahl declined to comment.

Doug Anderson, the deputy city controller whose inspectors will be in charge of enforcing the retrofitting requirements, said his inspectors haven’t been trained.

Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, co-sponsor of the ordinance, said she hopes the regulations are written as soon as possible.

“Until it’s implemented, it’s just words on a page,” said Rudiak, who is running for re-election.

Rudiak said she has a list of ordinances that council passed that haven’t been implemented by this administration.

“At the end of the day, I want to make sure the public is aware of what’s really going on out there, and they can be the judge of how they feel about it,” she said.

According to Pittsburgh’s City Code, any ordinance that isn’t vetoed by the mayor, automatically becomes law; the Clean Air Act of 2010 was signed by Ravenstahl.

But in order for the law to be enforceable, rules need to be drafted.

The dirty diesel regulations have been in the works for more than a year.

“That’s a long time,” said Denise Rousseau, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College.

Rousseau, who was speaking about the role of elected leaders in implementing laws and not about any specific instance, suggested that the reasons for the delay might include an administrative backlog, logistical problems coming up with enforceable rules or pressure from an external source.

An undue burden?

Construction industry representatives, who were at the table during the drafting of the law, warned that retrofitting requirements might block small construction companies from doing business in Pittsburgh.

The Heinz Endowments, whose Breathe Project works with government and industry for cleaner air, contributed to an existing Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) fund to help small contractors retrofit their equipment. (The Heinz Endowments also supports PublicSource.)

“It was a way to help small contractors to still be competitive under a new requirement,” said Caren Glotfelty, senior director of The Heinz Endowments’ Environment Program.

A new piece of diesel equipment is a huge investment for companies, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Besides buying new equipment, companies can replace the engine, swap parts in the engine, or attach a filter to retrofit. Each option must be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Not all machines have solutions,” said Jason Koss.

Koss is the director of industry relations for the Constructors Association of Western Pennsylvania. About 15 members of the trade association have already retrofitted their equipment using money from the ACHD, he said.

Koss said there are always costs associated with new regulations.

Supporters of the law said opportunities to make the air cleaner are being lost.

And for people like Feldman, the costs of the region’s poor air quality are tangible.

Feldman, one of Dr. Holguin’s patients, developed asthma and allergies during his early 50s. But he hasn’t has an asthma attack for about four years because he regularly takes his medication.

The meds cost about $150 a month, even with health insurance through WQED. (The public broadcasting network is a news partner of PublicSource.)

Filippini, of GASP, said that doing nothing about the diesel air pollution may seem like the cheaper and easier thing to do, but the health and environmental costs are great. Children miss school because of asthma attacks; parents miss work to stay home with sick children. There are also more emergency room visits, and higher insurance premiums.

Pittsburgh has come a long way from i’s ‘smoky city’ image, Filippini said, adding that this law is a tangible step the city can take to clean up regional air pollution.

“It is a way that they can be a leader,” she said.

Correction: This story originally said that Councilman Bill Peduto is running for mayor against Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Ravenstahl is not running for another term.

Reach Emily DeMarco at 412-315-0262 or edemarco@publicsource.org.

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  • Great story on an important issue. Diesel pollution is extremely toxic, and in a busy urban area, it comes from many sources, so we have to look at many solutions. Clean construction is just one needed tool. Please visit our web site here to see what we've been doing about diesel recently: http://gasp-pgh.org/projects/diesel-campaign/. - by GASP on March 7, 2013 - 12:20pm
  • Excellent story. Stellar reporting. We need to also tackle this problem in PA: Under the state's no-smoking law, bars can apply for an exemption as long as they don't allow anyone under 18 inside and food accounts for 20 percent or less of overall sales. At casinos, half the gaming floor is exempt. There are more and more bars that are taking advantage of this and allowing smoking. This state is lagging very far behind others who have done outright smoking bans. - by Ben Schmitt on March 7, 2013 - 11:18am