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Debate Rages On As Air Quality In Region Ranks Among The Worst In The Nation

CLAIRTON, Pa. (KDKA) -- Many take the air we breathe here in Pittsburgh for granted, but suddenly it's become the topic of major debate.

The air in this region ranks among the worst in the nation.

But how bad is it, really?

Johnnie Perryman will tell you.

He has a heart condition and has to wear a painter's mask around the house and outside in Clairton, where particulate pollution and sulfur dioxide emissions from the Clairton Coke Works plant pose health threats linked to asthma, cancer and stroke.

"When this air kills me, who are they going to charge with murder?" Perryman said.

For most of us, the air we breathe today is decidedly better than the dark days of this region's industrial past, when the steel industry belched smoke so thick that tsometimes noon looked like midnight.

WATCH: A Look Back At The Smog-Born Plague In Donora

"We started out with the worst air in the country. We've made the most improvement in air quality in the country, but we still have the vestige of industry still here still. We still have a lot of industry. We have a lot of old industry," said Jim Kelly of the Allegheny County Health Department.

Most of the mills are gone now.

Several coal-fired power plants have closed, and regulations are far tougher than they were.

But in the Mon Valley — the Clairton Coke Works plant — as well as the Edgar Thompson Works in Braddock, are still producing soot and smog that violate clean air standards.

In the past three years, an Allegheny County air monitor situated between the two plants has registered 12.6 particulates per cubic meter, which violates the federal standard of 12 parts and poses a health threat to those who live nearby.

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

"There are tens of thousands of people who are being exposed to pollution in our county that they would not be if they lived in other parts of the country," said Matthew Mehalik of CMU's Breathe Project.

The quality of the air largely depends on where you live in relation to the Mon Valley.

Nine other monitors spread across the county are all in compliance, and the readings get better the farther away you are.

For example, Lawrenceville registers 9.1 parts per cubic meter; South Fayette 8.3; and North Park 7.8.

KDKA Air Quality Survey: Results from all participants.

Those readings are on a par with Raccoon State Park in Beaver County and Greensburg in Westmoreland County.

They are all in compliance not only with national standards but tougher international standards.

"According to the World Health Organization, that's a standard which means good, clean air," Kelly said.

The Allegheny County Health Department said outside the Mon Valley, you can breathe easy.

KDKA Air Quality Survey: Results from those who live 5 miles away from an industrial site.

The air does not pose a threat to your health or your activities. Still, that's on a good day.

Air quality is also largely dependent upon the weather.

Lately, the entire region has experienced some of the worst particulate pollutions in the country during what's called temperature inversions, which is when cold ground-level air full of particulates becomes trapped by warm air above it.

Twice already this year, state regulators have issued a Code Orange Air Quality Alert, and over Christmas week an inversion trapped harmful air throughout the region for eight straight days.

KDKA Air Quality Survey: Results from those who live 10 miles away from an industrial site.

Allegheny County, which had only four inversions in the past 10 years, has now had three in just the past four months.

"Whether you say it's related to climate change warming or not, teh data is showing this is occurring more frequently," said Kelly.

The Breathe Project developed an app called "Smell PGH," which allows residents to report bad air events in real-time.

KDKA Air Quality Survey: Results from those who live 15 miles away from an industrial site.

On one day, it showed wind pushing some bad-smelling air out of the Mon Valley and into the South Hills, pointing to the Coke WOrks plant as the region's most pressing problem.

"If they would be able to stop fugitive emissions and leakage from that plant, our region's air would improve tremendously. If we could improve the emission from that plant, it's possible our air would be near the 40th or 50th percentile in the country."

KDKA Air Quality Survey: Results from those who live 25 miles away from an industrial site.

Right now, clean air advocates and the Allegheny County Health Department are at odds on whether enough is being done to do just that.

This past summer, the county entered into what it calls a breakthrough pact with U.S. Steel. The company has agreed to make $200 million in environmental improvements over and above what is required by federal regulation.

Kelly: As far as agreements goes, it's going to be hard to find anything that is better than this.

Mehalik: We've heard pledges from U.S. Steel in the past. They've promised to fix up old coke batteries, and they've backed away when economic conditions make it so it's unattractive for them.

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