Allegheny County plans to ramp up its efforts to make the air less stinky

Jim Kelly, the deputy director of environmental health for Allegheny County, made a surprise announcement at the most recent board of health meeting last month.

He said his department was starting to develop more stringent emission regulations that would improve an air quality issue that has long gone unaddressed.

The issue is one that plays an outsized role in perceptions of Pittsburgh’s environment: the rotten egg smell that many people say disrupts their lives. The smell on its own doesn’t cause harm. But some residents worry that the source of the foul smell — hydrogen sulfide — is sometimes emitted with other substances, like benzene, a known carcinogen.

Reducing harmful pollutants has long been the county’s focus, but it has also been out of compliance for its smell about one day a week every year for decades. The new regulations being developed have the potential to continue decreasing the emissions of harmful gases, but one of the main purposes would be to cut down on the stench floating across the city.

One of the board members asked, “Is industry aware of this?”

“Not yet,” Kelly said at the May 2 meeting. And then, after the whole room broke into nervous laughter, Kelly added, “They are now.””….Continue reading

This Pittsburgh program is tackling climate change, inequality and your neighbor’s energy bill one light bulb at a time

Angelo Norelli’s house in Uptown was always cold. Too cold for his seven grandchildren to visit in the winter. Even with an extra heater running in his bedroom, he still had to use several blankets to sleep. And he didn’t know where the heat was escaping.

Norelli, 67, didn’t have a lot of extra money or energy to figure it out either. He calls himself ‘semi-retired,’ but he works three jobs to supplement his Social Security income: he drives for Uber, serves as an usher at Penguins games and owns a small screenprinting business.

So when one of his neighbors told him about a free program that could warm up his house and decrease his utility bills, he signed up.

The Pittsburgh nonprofit Conservation Consultants spearheaded the program, called Grassroots Green Homes, in 2016 to help people like Norelli make their homes healthier and more energy efficient.

They recruited more than 300 homeowners in Oakland and Uptown. By concentrating their efforts in just two neighborhoods, they hoped residents would share what they learned and catalyze a broader change.

Over the year, the program provided participants with 12 free tools, such as energy-efficient light bulbs, and 12 tips, such as to close the drapes at night. And 20 of the homes like Norelli’s were selected to receive substantial additional help.

The nonprofit replaced his water heater and furnace with more energy-efficient options. They added a door to separate his bedroom from the attic and replaced a door to his basement where he had stuffed rags into the cracks. They blew insulation into his attic crawl space and replaced the rotten wood on his overhang.

After more than a year, Norelli said, he now saves $28 a month on his gas bills, 22 percent less than before. He’s put his bedroom heater away and his grandchildren visit regularly for Sunday dinners. After more than 30 years, he finally feels warm in his own home….Continue reading

“Can reviving a 120-year-old stream stop dangerous flooding on Pittsburgh’s Washington Boulevard?”

Kimberly Griffith and two of her children were driving home after lunch when the rain started to pick up. The day — Aug. 19, 2011 — had already been a rainy one in Pittsburgh.

But on that afternoon, another 2 inches of rain fell in one hour.

Griffith pulled up to the bottom of Washington Boulevard in a storm with enough force to blow off 60-pound manhole covers. The street filled with 9 feet of rainwater and sewage, and Griffith’s minivan was submerged, killing her and her two daughters. Another woman was killed after being swept into the sewer.

Such heavy rain used to fall once every couple of years. But in the last eight years, the area has seen storms with an inch or more of rainfall in a single hour about three times every year. The prevalence of intense rain will likely worsen with climate change, scientists say.

Solutions have long been ignored. Flooding killed a motorist on Washington Boulevard in 1951, but Pittsburgh City Council at the time deemed the $785,000 needed to raise the road and build a storm sewer too costly.

More than 60 years earlier, the city buried the stream that once carried floodwater to the river. Renowned entrepreneur and judge Thomas Mellon argued against it, saying that there was too much water to fit into an underground sewer line. “This run in cases of heavy rains is turned into a raging torrent which an eight-and-a-half foot sewer cannot carry off,” Mellon said in an 1887 article in the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette.

Now neighborhood groups near the former stream want to bring it back to life in the area around Larimer, Highland Park, Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar and Homewood West. When torrential rain comes, advocates of the resurrected stream hope it will stop sewers from backing up and give water from the hills surrounding the road a natural place to go.

They call the proposed stream Little Negley Run.

The most ambitious designs for the project could stop much of the flooding on Washington Boulevard and remove hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage from the Allegheny River each year, according to a 2017 design by the firms eDesign Dynamics and Evolve. Millions of dollars in green infrastructure would be invested in some of Pittsburgh’s most economically distressed neighborhoods. But costs could run from $40 million to $80 million. This would make it the most expensive green stormwater project ever undertaken in the city.

“The technology, the design is all doable,” said Ian Lipsky, one of the designers at eDesign. “The biggest challenge to implementation is political will and cost.”….Continue reading

Members of the 171st ARW Fire Department conduct training on July 7, 2007.
(USAF photo taken by Msgt Stacey Barkey)

“Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians have been exposed to dangerous PFAS chemicals, including around Pittsburgh’s airport”

A new Pennsylvania state task force established to address widespread chemical contamination will hold its first public meeting on Friday, as questions loom about how far the contamination has spread and what it will take to get it under control.

The contamination is from a class of chemicals referred to as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances). The chemicals have gotten into water supplies in hundreds of locations across the country and are associated with a range of cancers and serious illnesses in humans, even if they’ve been exposed to very small amounts.

The state is planning to start a thorough round of testing in early 2019. So far, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has identified at least 20 contamination sites in the state, including two near Pittsburgh that were added to the state’s list in the past few weeks. The local sites are the Pittsburgh Air National Guard in Moon Township and Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station in Coraopolis; the state guard unit is stationed at the federal reserve station and both use the international airport’s property.

About 98 percent of Americans already have trace amounts of these chemicals in their blood, but the worst contamination has been found near military bases, airports and factories that used two of the most ubiquitous and dangerous strains of the chemical family — PFOS and PFOA.

Those two chemicals, which have been discontinued in the United States since 2015, were used in firefighting foam, often tested on military bases, and hundreds of other consumer products for the primary purpose of repelling water and oil. The most common brand names associated with these chemicals are Teflon and Scotchgard, which started using PFOS and PFOA in the 1940s.

Everyone should avoid these chemicals, said Tracy Carluccio, the deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. But she said the most urgent need is to figure out how much of the state’s drinking water has been contaminated.

“The exposure to drinking water dwarfs all other pathways to exposure,” she said. “If you don’t address drinking water and only address consumer products, you are not going to eliminate the risk of disease.”…Continue reading

“WHERE MIDTERM CANDIDATES STAND ON ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES”, Two-way interview with Kara Holosopple on WESA and The Allegheny Front, about my public service piece for PublicSource

To find out about the environmental views of candidates on the ballot in Allegheny County, PublicSource, a news outlet in Pittsburgh, and The Allegheny Front emailed 51 candidate a survey that asked six questions. Nineteen of them sent back responses. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple talked with environmental reporter, Oliver Morrison of PublicSource about the key takeaways.

Kara Holsopple: So let’s just dig into some of these questions. Question number one was, “Do you accept the scientific consensus that human-made emissions are driving climate change? Why or why not? And if yes, are we doing enough to address it?” A couple of the Libertarian candidates were skeptical about the science regarding the scope and severity of climate change, and the Libertarian candidate who did think it was a pressing problem said, maybe not surprisingly, that private industry should be addressing it. But what about the rest of the field?

Oliver Morrison: The consensus among all the Democrats and the Green Party candidates is that the science is reliable and we should be doing something about it.

The Green Party candidates have a really ambitious agenda. They want to put a lot of money into green energy; they want to limit fossil fuel use; they want to decentralize the grid so instead of big coal power plants you might have a big solar panel or some sort of wind turbine and that energy could fund the energy in your neighborhood; they want to tax the fossil fuel industry.

A lot of the Democrats also agreed with the science but tended to be a little bit less specific on exactly what they wanted to do to increase action on climate change.

Energy investors to Pittsburgh: If you want to save the environment—think about how to make money

Stop talking so much about the environment. Stop talking about carbon. Stop building “green teams.” And, instead, start talking about money, efficiency and performance.

That was the message to businesses, engineers and environmentalists alike from Don Anderson, the chief sustainability officer for the private equity group at Blackstone last week at Carnegie Mellon University’s Energy Week.

Blackstone runs the largest private equity fund in the world with a portfolio that includes more than 80 companies and 500,000 employees. And so they are in a position, he said, to know what actually works rather than what has become trendy in environmental circles. He routinely works with large companies, he said, and finds tens of millions of dollars in savings, which also can have a big impact on the environment.

But the best way to achieve these environmental returns, he said, is to stop talking about it. Be ruthless about earning money from energy efficiency, and the environmental benefits will follow; good intentions and wanting to appear sustainable are getting in the way of getting results, he said….Continue reading

What some Pittsburgh-area institutions are doing to stem food waste and an unexpected side effect of those efforts

University of Pittsburgh freshman Naydia Rowe recently grabbed a plate of french fries at dinner. But when she tasted the fries, she realized they weren’t fresh. She went back and got a new plate.

“I do feel bad because not everyone has food and I’m out here wasting a plate of good fries,” she said.

The University of Pittsburgh’s largest dining hall, Market Central, wastes nearly 1,000 pounds of edible food per day. Their waste contributes to the 130 billion pounds of food wasted in the United States every year, at a cost of $161 billion.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture aims to cut food waste 50 percent by 2030. A group of philanthropies recently released a report on how this could be done. The report, called ReFED, suggested it would cost $18 billion to achieve but would reap more than $100 billion in economic benefits, in addition to environmental ones.

Several large Pittsburgh institutions, including hospitals and universities, have begun implementing some of the report’s recommendations. The efforts include everything from digging through garbage cans to taking photos of all the food that is thrown out. The report outlined more than two dozen strategies, and these institutions are taking on several of the most promising.

But, in some cases, reducing food waste has had unexpected consequences: taking food from the needy….Continue reading here. And there is an audio postcard about one method of reducing food waste produced for WESA here.

As Pittsburgh region increases plastics production, a leading scientist asks: How much of it will get in our water sources?

Sherri Mason sees plastic everywhere.

She spends her summers on boats sifting the water for plastic and her winters analyzing it in labs. She looks for it in tap water, fish guts and sea salt. She once saw someone throw a plastic bottle out of a car window and angrily chased after the car, much to her daughter’s chagrin.

On Wednesday morning, as the professor of chemistry was trying to give a talk about her research on microplastics, she stopped mid-sentence to point out another shiny plastic bottle in the distance, floating along the Ohio River near Point State Park.

“I’ve seen a few different pieces since we’ve been talking. It’s a sickness at this point,” said Mason, who teaches and conducts research at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

On the morning boat tour with about 30 interested teachers and students from local schools and colleges, Mason planned to test the river for microplastics — which can be smaller than a millimeter and can enter the human body.

Little testing for microplastics has been done in Pittsburgh’s rivers. She was confident she’d find some plastic. But how much?

Mason hoisted a large net over the side of the boat. Ten minutes later, she pulled it back up and looked inside.

She pulled out a tiny piece of plastic and held it up….Continue reading

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