Columnist Brittany Thomas says air quality regulation isn’t as effective as it could be in the city.
Philadelphia doesn’t have the greatest reputation when it comes to air quality. But awareness of the deep-rooted problem is increasing, as more conscientious citizens take a stand to protect their communities from toxic releases emitted by the dozens of industrial facilities in close proximity to residential areas.
While the city has implemented its own organization dedicated to regulating toxic emissions, Air Management Services still struggles to ensure federal standards for the permitted level of pollution are met.
Several city industrial facilities, such as the Sunoco Inc. (R&M) Frankford Plant, rank in the 80th to 90th percentile of the dirtiest and worst facilities in the country. The ranking system is based on the company’s total environmental releases. But an overall lack of finances, staff and resources limit AMS in its abilities to properly enforce air quality standards, and there are noticeable health implications of the city’s shortcomings.
“Philadelphia is a nonattainment area for ground level ozone, which is attributed to asthma,” said Patrick Egan, the communications coordinator for the Philadelphia branch of the Environmental Protection Agency’s air protection department. “But we are actually working on strengthening our ozone nonattainment standard.”
Only 181 days last year were rated “good days,” due to high ozone levels, and there are various problematic reasons why the city has had trouble coming into compliance with federal standards. One of these is that although there is a monitoring network of 12 different air quality monitors scattered through the city, there are none designed to detect pollution from any particular facility.
Instead, facilities hold permits with the city that allow them to emit a certain amount of pollution. These facilities are responsible for recording and reporting their own data to AMS on a regular basis. If they see a violation on those reports, or if a member of the surrounding community makes a complaint, then AMS can issue a violation.
“The reality is when you have self-reporting, sometimes things don’t get reported,” said Adam Cutler, the director of the public health and environmental justice clinic at the public interest law center of Philadelphia. “Certainly, [I] wouldn’t say that’s always the case, some companies do a good job of cleaning up and reporting when things go wrong, and they want to take responsibility – other companies don’t.”
There is good news. Cutler and his colleagues helped educate the community of Huntington Park on air pollution and health, after it sought out their assistance to organize an opposition against a local polluting facility’s proposal to expand its operations. Their combined efforts were able to convince the facility to withdraw its proposal and work with the community to adopt cleaner business practices.
The EPA is also working to put legislation like the Clean Air Transport Rule into effect, which would enforce reducing emissions nationwide.
“Gina McCarthy, head of the EPA’s air and radiation office, said the new rules would reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides by hundreds of thousands of tons a year and bring $120 billion in annual health benefits,” according to Sourcewatch.org. “Those benefits, Ms. McCarthy said, include preventing 14,000 to 36,000 premature deaths, 23,000 nonfatal heart attacks, 21,000 cases of acute bronchitis, 240,000 cases of aggravated asthma and 1.9 million missed school and work days.”
Putting this into effect would cost approximately $2.8 billion a year, but hopefully the benefits of its implementation will outweigh the financial burden. The EPA urges citizens to call or write their elected officials to persuade them to support action for clean air.
“Facilities are going to have to come into compliance with these standards once they get the final rule,” Egan said. “Once that happens, you’ll start seeing improvement in health and emergency room visits, as well, but it will take some time.”
Brittany Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.