The Lung Association’s Latest Bogus Air Quality Report on Allegheny County

Right on schedule, the American Lung Association is out with its annual report on air pollution in the EPA’s Pittsburgh attainment region that includes several counties in Southwest Pennsylvania, two in West Virginia and one in Ohio. As usual it portrays the region as one of the worst in the country, ranking 9th worst among metro areas for particulate matter and 10th in ozone. Based on the Lung Association report, Allegheny County was targeted for particularly strident criticism for having unsafe air in a press release from the Clean Air Council and PennFuture.  However, there are many problems with the methodology used in the report, and more importantly, it fails to point out just how clean the air in the region actually is, especially in Allegheny County.

 

In the first place, the Association report uses data averaged over the three year period 2011, 2012, and 2013 according to EPA standard guidelines.  Therefore the oldest data is now four years old and the newest is from almost 18 months ago. Air quality in the County has improved significantly since 2011. For fine particulate matter (PM2.5—the subject of most of the press release’s criticism) the average concentration level measured at the 11 monitors (at nine locations) throughout Allegheny County and reported to the EPA fell 13 percent from to 2011 to 2013. Indeed, in 2013 not one of the 11 monitors had an annual average level of PM2.5 above the EPA’s standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter (all data taken from EPA website).  Not only did the average for the monitoring sites in the County fall from 2011 to 2013, each and every monitoring location for which EPA keeps records including Avalon, Oakdale, Lawrenceville, Liberty, McCandless, Harrison, North Braddock, and Clairton reported lower PM2.5 levels in 2013 than in 2011—the Avalon reading was down 25 percent.

 

As noted above, the EPA standard for attainment is based on an average of three annual sets of readings of the concentration levels for PM2.5. Based on the three year criterion, only the two monitoring stations in Liberty Borough near the coke plant violated the EPA standard. Monitor one at Liberty averaged 13.4 micrograms per cubic meter, while monitor two averaged 12.9.   All other monitors in the County averaged below 12 for the three years 2011, 2012, and 2013, ranging from 8.8 in McCandless to 11.7 in North Braddock. In the City, the two monitoring stations in Lawrenceville averaged 10.3 and 9.9, both in what is classified as the green or good range.

 

So, in order to classify the entire County as having bad air in its 2015 report, the Lung Association has to rely on the Liberty monitor readings of 2011and 2012 because they caused those monitors to be above the three year average standard—note that the Liberty monitors averaged under 12 in 2013. But since all other monitors in the County were in three year compliance with readings in the good range (under 12) for the three year period, the Lung Association’s pillorying of County air quality is completely irrational. Did they even consider reviewing data from other monitoring sites?  If 95 percent or more of the County’s area has good air, what useful purpose is served by trying to make people in good air areas believe they are in danger from the one small area?  This is especially true considering the one small area has moved in to the good range in recent years.

 

Moreover, if the Lung Association is serious about their methodology and their research, before they put out a report that talks about air quality as if it had not changed in four years, they might want to look at some recent data. The County Health Department maintains six PM2.5 monitoring facilities at four daily reporting sites in Allegheny County, Liberty and Lincoln in the Mon Valley, as well as in Lawrenceville and Avalon. The data from these six monitors are reported daily on the Health Department website.  Since April 23 of this year there has been only one 24 hour average reading of PM2.5 above 12 at any monitor in the County and that occurred at the Lincoln monitor on April 29 when a measurement of 13 was recorded. The above 12 reading at Lincoln was preceded by several days in the 6 to 9 range and was quickly replaced by another reading of 9 on the 30th. In other words, this reading was no cause for alarm or even concern except among those who look for any chance, no matter how insignificant in the grand scheme, to issue dire warnings.

 

In short, as far as particulate matter is concerned in Allegheny County, 2015 has improved over the 2013 readings, which was itself significantly improved from 2011. And bear in mind that from the standard set by the EPA, the entire County has been deemed to have unhealthy air by virtue of nothing more than the Liberty readings of 2011 and 2012.

 

This latest Lung Association report qualifies as junk science since it goes on at length to make it sound as if people living in any part of Allegheny County are at very high risk of lung diseases and severe aggravation of other diseases.  When will the air ever be clean enough for them ? And when will they stop using flawed analysis to push an agenda?

 

Here’s a final question. With his strong environmentalist views, is the City’s Mayor worried about air quality in Pittsburgh?  Apparently not.  If air quality was as bad as the Lung Association and the Clean Air Council claim it is, then it would be imprudent and ill-advised for the Mayor to allow the marathon to be held in the City and certainly he should not be encouraging large numbers of people to ride bicycles on all the miles of bike paths he is creating.  Imagine the lung and other respiratory damage to those people if the City’s air quality actually matched the level claimed in rhetoric spewed out by the groups who never stop complaining about air pollution.

Pittsburgh Area Jobs Grew in June

Private sector employment grew in June at a respectable pace as measured by the change from June 2011. Jobs increased by 19,000 over the period, a rise of nearly two percent. Still, the latest monthly and quarterly gains are well below the torrid pace of 30,000 plus gains set in the fourth quarter of last year.

June’s good year over year growth reflects strong gains in professional and technical service (3,500), leisure and hospitality (4,500), and trucking (1,900, an almost 10 percent 12 month rise). Education and health services rose a solid 3,800 but that is well below the very strong gains from last fall when 12 month gains topped 13,000.

On a less positive note, construction employment fell by 2,700 compared to June 2011 while manufacturing managed a tiny 300 gain. Mining and logging slowed to 1,100 from the nearly 2,000 yearly rise posted in June 2011.

Overall, the June 2012 jobs numbers are good but with the Marcellus drilling activity slowing from the year ago blistering pace, the trucking, technical and hospitality sectors could begin to be negatively affected.

All told, the Pittsburgh area has profited from the gas drilling and the fact that there was no major collapse of the housing sector as happened in so much of the then fast growing regions of the country.

A Look at the Local Housing Market

In light of the reassessment-delayed until 2013 when new values will be fully implemented-and the County’s 21% 1 mill tax increase-to go into effect immediately and to be paid on the upcoming tax bill-it is worth noting that the median home sale price in Allegheny County rose 43% over the last eleven years from $84k in 2000 to $120k in 2011. The dollar volume of sales rose to $2.2 billion from $2 billion in 2000 but the total number of sales declined from over 18k in 2000 t0 14k in 2011. That’s according to the year end report of sales complied by RealStats.

The data also covers the adjacent four counties of Beaver, Butler, Washington, and Westmoreland which comprise but do not fully account for the Pittsburgh metro area. The median sales price for the five county area in 2011 was $125k. Washington County had the biggest percentage increase in median sales price (60%) while Beaver had the smallest (22%).

Using that $125k 2011 value as a proxy for the metro area, Pittsburgh would fall into the grouping with regions like Cincinnati ($126k), Spartanburg ($124k), Buffalo ($123k), Rochester ($123k), Las Vegas ($122.7k), and Wichita ($120.9k) based on the median sales price in the 3rd quarter of 2011 according to the National Association of Realtors. Since 2008 the median sales price in Las Vegas fell from where it stood at $220.5k; many of the other metros in that $130-120k range were there or close by in 2008.

Public School Employment Up From a Year Ago

Notwithstanding the gnashing of teeth and doomsday prediction of diehard defenders of ever more spending on public schools, employment in the schools increased by 500 jobs in the Pittsburgh region from April 2010 to April 2011. While some reductions-or announced reductions are now in place-it is obvious that school districts have not been engaged in significant cutting.

The time of reckoning is at hand however as Federal stimulus funds have run out and state budget problems are likely to result in state spending cuts for education. As we have been warning for two years, the stimulus money was a trap. By allowing school districts to maintain spending levels rather forcing hard decisions, the state funding cuts will require much deeper reductions in staff and programs than would have otherwise been the case.

Our admonitions to have school boards ask teachers to take a pay freeze two years ago went unheeded, even derided. A pay freeze then would be worth several jobs now. But then greed by the unions and cowardice on the part of school boards is never a good combination for students or taxpayers.

Brookings Tells Us Nothing New About Pittsburgh Economy

Since 2008, the Allegheny Institute has commented many times on the slow arriving recession and its relatively moderate negative impact on the region’s economy.  With no housing or general real estate boom there was no bust in the region-a major factor in the severity of the downturn in many fast growing cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix and states such as Florida.

 

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No Boom, No Bust, No Surprise

"It’s not Pittsburgh’s way to boom or bust"

"Pittsburgh has avoided many of the housing-related problems that plague the larger economy because home values here did not boom or bust during the mortgage bubble"

"Pittsburgh’s many years of ‘slow and steady’ job growth…insulated us from economic cataclysm and a boom-bust housing market cycle"

"Its housing market, which famously went boom-bust elsewhere, has been a portrait of stability"

"The Pittsburgh area did not see a building boom over recent years like that seen in other areas across the country — and it’s also not seeing a strong decline in recent months in new construction"

"Steady, manageable growth is better than a boom waiting for the bust. One need only look at the plummeting housing market in Las Vegas — the fastest growing metro region over the past five years — to understand that"

"The good news about Pittsburgh missing the nation’s recent housing boom is that, so far, it’s missing the bust, too"

The above quotes provide a sampling of opinion from November 2007 to mid-2010 and are predicated on the theme that Pittsburgh weathered recessionary times quite well because it never had the rapid growth experienced by other regions. In sum, Pittsburgh never boomed, so it never busted.

That’s great news when things go south, but not so much when there are signs of growth.

A new study from the Brookings Institution that points out Pittsburgh is lagging behind world economies and stands at 129th in a survey of 150 regions in what the report identifies as the recovery period when measured by gross value added, employment, and population. That’s one place lower than where it stood pre-recession but lower than where it was in the recession (41st out of 150). Given the nearly three years of consensus opinion the ranking, if accurate, should not come as a shock.

One of the study’s authors noted "standing still was a good place to be. Standing still now is not something a city should be doing."

But is the region poised for growth? What was a bad economic and labor climate prior to the recession has been made worse by the City passing new mandates for prevailing and living wages, the resistance to explore privatization and outsourcing as a way to lower the cost of government and the taxes and fees charged to businesses, and the fealty to public sector unions has not waned. Not positive signs that the region will make strides.

And the danger is this: if the region thinks it will always be in the middle of the pack with slow and steady growth then the resistance to bad public policy becomes even lower than it already is. What does that do for the relative standing of the region in comparison with other areas?

Real Tragedy of Pirates Losing Season Record

Here’s where we rather impolitely say "told you so." Back during the debate over funding for new stadiums, we pointed out that Pittsburgh was a small market team with little television revenue and did not have a history of being a "baseball" town in the manner of St. Louis with its strong attendance record in the old Busch Stadium or, to a lesser extent, Cincinnati. Thus, we argued that a new ballpark in Pittsburgh would not end the Pirates’ weak attendance or generate significant gains in TV money. So, unless the team owners showed a willingness to roll the dice and spend a lot of money beyond the team’s near term earning potential, mediocrity or futility on the field would continue.

And as it turns out, that has been the result.

But what is worse, during the debate over spending hundreds of million in tax dollars for the new ballpark, we were told that great economic benefits would accrue to the region with stronger job and income gains. That claim turned out to be as fatuous as the assurance that the team would be pennant contenders in the new ballpark. Indeed, private sector jobs in the region are now 30,000 below their 2001 level. Jobs remained below the 2001 level until 2008 when they barely managed to struggle back to the seven year earlier reading.

So much for engendering economic dynamism in the region.

The City of Pittsburgh has been placed in distressed status by the state and remains a financial basket case because of legacy costs and overspending.

The real tragedy of the Pirates arises from the bill of goods taxpayers were sold and had rammed down their throats despite strong opposition by politicians and civic leaders who were certain the corporate welfare involved in keeping the Pirates would pay dividends for the City and region. The greatest irony is the Pirates had nowhere to go. There was no place other than Washington, D.C. big enough to support a major league franchise. And the Orioles were successfully blocking any team moving there. Only years later after Montreal collapsed did Major League Baseball overcome that resistance.

In sum, taxpayers ended up paying for a new ballpark under false pretenses and have received none of the promised returns on their investment. Can public policy be any worse?