Type 2 Diabetic. Cyclist Flâneur.   Coffeeneur.    Errandoneur
A bike / map geek with a gadget obsession and a high-viz fetish.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Hazardous Air Quality along the GAP Trail (Great Allegheny Passage)

This is a story of today, the story of 2019, the story of the 1948 Donora Smog, the story of Big Money vs Public Health that's been going on for a very long time. And to be honest, it's a story about privilege and It's All About Me.

In today's Post-Gazette, Chris Briem describes the economies of the Mon Valley. It's a brilliant article. Instead of "why did we lose steel", the writer starts with "why did we have steel?" and then moves into the economics of the loss.

Don't just take my word for it. Ashleigh Deemer, co-Director at Penn Environment, tweeted:


In the winter of 2018-2019, US Steel's Clairton plants had a fire which knocked out several polution-control devices at the Clairton plant. The Allegheny County, PA Public Health Department published several alerts warning of high emissions of sulfur dioxide and other contaminents.

One problem is there's a multitude of tiny municipalities in the warning area, and people don't always have a good sense of the geography and the implications when warnings are provided in words and text, without imagery.

On Jan 18, 2019, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette published this graphic of the areas with air quality concerns affected by US Steel's Clairton plant:

The first thing I'd offer is that the graphic is sort of a geographic Venn diagram - the areas of air quality concerns are all in Allegheny County, and none are in Pittsburgh, PA. So this is an Allegheny County problem and quite obviously not a Pittsburgh problem. To bring it into accountability and individuals, this is an Allegheny County Executive problem and not a Pittsburgh Mayor problem.

The second thing that jumps off the graphic to me is a statement of my own privilege: I look at that map and say, Hey my fave bike trails are in this area where they're telling people to avoid being outside? Why aren't I hearing more about this from the Trails people?

It's my own privilege to focus on the Trails implications of the ongoing Clairton air quality issue. There are old people who will die early, young people who will develop respiratory issues, and middle-aged people who will see their real estate values stay constant because of this pollution. But if it's All About Me, I want to talk about Trails.

This shows the Montour Trail and GAP Trail (Great Allegheny Passage) and the Clairton pollution footprint.


But back to today and my own privilege. Allegheny County actively persuades people to ride the Montour and GAP trails as a matter of economic policy. If you fly into the County-run PIT airport, intending to ride to DC, the baggage claim area offers a workstation for you to re-assemble your bike, and they've built a wonderful airport connector route that takes you to the Montour Trail and thence the Great Allegheny Passage. You can fly in and ride out, straight into the Clairton air pollution zone.

On some days, a different branch of Allegheny County government advertises that people should avoid exertion and avoid being outside in the exact same area. This is a Venn diagram of complete overlap. There's a complete dissonance in the County's activities.

A related anecdote: Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh used to advertise the Pittsburgh Triathalon, which includes a swim in the Allegheny River. On certain days, the County Sewer Authority (ALCOSAN) would flush untreated sewage into the river and advertise that swimming, fishing, boating were unhealthy in the exact same area where the County-City Triathlon was sending people swimming. At least one particvipant was hospitalized.

Fortunately, and in my perspective due to the work of S. Quesen PhD, the river quality is now evaluated daily before Triathalon swimming events.

If the County (appropriately)encourages people to engage in an activity, then the County has an obligation to provide real-time info to participants.

If the County Health Department publishes Air Quality Warnings affecting the Montour Trail and the GAP Trail, the County has an obligation to inform trail users. Signs saying, "air quality warning", or "avoid strenuous activities" would be a great start.