Air quality has an important impact on our community, and the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association is concerned about both the recent poor air quality events in the Monongahela River valley, and larger trends in Greater Pittsburgh on this issue.

In late December 2019, air quality in the Pittsburgh area took a nosedive. At the Liberty air quality monitor in the Mon Valley, not too far from the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works, levels of pollutants rose above regulatory limits for several consecutive days. At Pittsburgh International Airport in Moon Township, dozens of flights were canceled—at the peak of the holiday season, no less. PurpleAir’s air quality monitors showed poor air quality in the city, too. As Christine Brill of Lawrenceville Clean Air Now points out, residents were not immediately alerted about the situation, compounding the problem.

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December’s pollution event was the result of a temperature inversion—an event where air near ground level was warmer than air higher in the atmosphere, the inverse of the usual pattern. When this happens, pollution is unable to rise into the atmosphere with hot air in the way it usually does. Temperature inversions are likely becoming more common due to climate change, and the valleys of Western Pennsylvania are particularly susceptible to them. These events have plagued our region for generations—see the example of 1948’s Donora smog incident, a deadly pollution event that included a temperature inversion.

On January 10, 2020, a number of Pittsburgh-based environmental organizations held a Clean Air Rally (pictured above) at the Pittsburgh city-county building to protest this concerning holiday event. After the rally, dozens of people—including our Executive Director, Brenda Smith—spoke out during public comment at an Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) meeting that afternoon.

A month later, the ACHD levied fines totaling $2.7 million, as well as additional penalties, on U.S. Steel for excessive pollution, settling a dispute dating back to 2019. The ACHD says it is developing further regulations on major polluters specifically focused on events similar to what happened in December.

We think it’s vital that the ACHD use their regulatory power in the case of another temperature inversion to require polluters to reduce their emissions during these sensitive events. Brill referenced a statute that could allow the ACHD to regulate pollution during temperature inversions without passing new legislation.

At the same time, the temperature inversion events and corresponding pollution have continued; the state Department of Environmental Protection placed 7 Western Pennsylvania counties, including Allegheny, under a poor air quality alert on January 23. (The same sort of alert had been issued during part of the holiday inversion about a month earlier, on December 24-25).

Air quality is vitally important to our region. There are a number of our nonprofit partners who work specifically on this issue. For more information on local air quality, we’d send you to our friends at GASP and Breathe Project, among other local organizations working on the issue. 

As a watershed association, we’re naturally concerned about air pollution’s effect on our watershed. In a process called atmospheric deposition, air pollutants make their way to the ground and into waterways, either falling on their own or being carried by precipitation.

Nitrogen is one important pollutant that travels into waterways by atmospheric deposition, and it can have a destructive effect on waterway wildlife. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program:

“Excess nitrogen can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life.”

University of Pittsburgh Ph.D. student Becky Forgrave has studied atmospheric deposition in Nine Mile Run. Forgrave summarized air pollution’s effect on pollution in NMR:

“…While there is definite evidence of atmospheric pollution in NMR, I think the major issues at this time are still mostly sewage and flooding related.” 

(Forgrave, personal communication)

In 2014, a lab colleague of Forgrave conducted a study on the sources of nitrogen in Nine Mile Run. During storms, they found that roughly one-third of nitrate pollution in NMR came from atmospheric deposition, compared to two-thirds from sewage. During dry times, nearly all nitrate inputs came from sewage.

While it may not be the most salient threat to our stream, atmospheric deposition is still an issue to pay close attention to in the Greater Pittsburgh area. Forgrave referenced a 2019 meta-analysis of studies on urban nitrogen deposition, which found that urban areas are “subject to higher rates of N deposition than nearby rural areas”. This finding implies that Greater Pittsburgh, like other urban areas, could be especially susceptible to nitrogen deposition concerns. 

Increases in precipitation brought on by climate change are making atmospheric deposition an even more important issue. A study from the Carnegie Institution for Science reviewed nitrogen deposition levels in comparison with climate data over time. The overpowering nature of climate’s effect on deposition is reflected in the study’s result in the Great Lakes, where “despite efforts to reduce the amount of nitrogen released by human activity, precipitation increased so much that nitrogen still overloaded the water system”, according to an article about the study (linked above). The additional risks for nitrogen deposition posed by climate change make it all the more imperative that we do what we can to reduce pollution levels. 

Though air quality isn’t the most important issue facing Nine Mile Run, it’s an issue that any environmentalist in Greater Pittsburgh should pay attention to—particularly considering the industrial pollution that has shaped our region. You may have heard about the Google engineer who told Public Source he plans to leave Pittsburgh due to air pollution. In response to that article, Carnegie Mellon professor Noah Theriault penned an opposing op-ed—saying that, yes, Pittsburgh is imperfect, but rather than leave at the first sign of difficulty, we can work together to make it better. The Nine Mile Run Watershed Association isn’t going anywhere, and we plan to be part of that work.

If you want to check local air quality levels and get directly involved, Purple Air has sensors across the region, Smell Pittsburgh features user-reported smell information, and AirNow.gov offers official government data.

By John Lavaccare, Communications Intern