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Local groups seek federal funding for air monitors


By Jamie Wiggan

Local grassroots organizations are looking to cash in on a new round of federal funding earmarked for community air monitoring projects.

More than 15 environmental groups worked together on applications headed by Carnegie Mellon University’s Breathe Project that included funding requests for additional air monitoring equipment around Neville Island and the broader Ohio Valley area.

Each is seeking a slice of the $20 million put forward by the EPA using American Rescue Plan funding. According to Matt Mehalik, executive director for the Breathe Project, the particular emphasis on smaller community groups marks a turning point from previous EPA grant programs that channeled funding through larger research institutions.

“The current EPA has put environmental justice as a higher priority and this is a very thoughtful way for them to direct resources to environmental justice needs,” he said.

Local advocates in Neville Island have teamed up with several groups in the Mon Valley requesting funds for monitoring equipment that would be able to give a more detailed picture of the local airshed. Patrick Campbell, executive director of Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), said a lack of clarity over precisely what substances residents are breathing in is an ongoing point of frustration.

“These communities need to know what is in their air,” he said. “They need to know how it affects their health.”

To achieve that fuller picture, groups including GASP, Neville Island-based Allegheny County Clean Air Now and several others in the Mon Valley are trying to obtain special canisters that collect air for detailed lab analysis. Known by the SUMMA brand, these canisters can be employed on short notice whenever a noxious smell arises.

ACCAN members say Neville-area residents are frequently plagued by sickly odors, which they attribute to industrial plants. But without data to support these claims, they cannot expect regulatory bodies to take enforcement action.

That could change, however, if the data collected from the canisters begin to demonstrate clearer patterns.

“It will be a way to communicate what is in the air, and the potential health impacts to particular toxins in the air,” said Campbell, who also noted the findings would be passed along to the county health department.

The applicants have requested funding for 180 canisters to use over a three-year period, and have also requested additional purple air monitors that record more basic pollution levels in real time.

Beginning at the northern tip of Neville Island and winding downstream up to Beaver County, another partnership, which includes the Coraopolis NAACP chapter, is also seeking EPA funding for SUMMA canisters.

Mehalik said this project is in part a response to increased air pollution events expected to result from Shell Chemical’s soon-to-open ethane cracker plant in Potter Township.

Tests conducted at the site during the past year have resulted in violation notices from the department of environmental protection.

Doug Krings, one of the leaders with the Ohio Valley group, said their proposal is split between plans for more monitoring capabilities and resources to communicate their findings.

If the funding materializes, he said the group will create a free sign-up service that alerts residents to pollution events via email or text message.

“A large part of what we’re doing is not just putting additional monitors in, but also to be able to build something that communicates that to people,” he said.

The applicants expect to hear back from the EPA by July or August, but they say even if funding isn’t awarded, the collaborative efforts will pay off in the future.

“We now have some really well-thought-out plans regardless of whether there’s federal money or not,” said Mehalik.


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