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“I am convinced that our people want clean air. There is no other single thing which will so dramatically improve the appearance, the health, the pride, the spirit of the city.”

– Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence in his 1946 inaugural speech

For over a century, Pittsburgh was known for the foulness of our air — it was the “The Smoky City.” Pittsburgh was called “hell with the lid off” in an 1866 article in The Atlantic Monthly and “the dirtiest pile of slag in the United States” by the National Municipal Review in 1944. In the 1939 film The City (video here), scene after scene of Pittsburgh is used as the prime example of how we had destroyed our cities through pollution. An extreme concentration of heavy industry often turned day into night and destroyed the health of the citizens, but as the film’s narrator intones, “smoke makes prosperity — no matter if you choke on it.” By the 1940’s, even businesses were threatening to leave, but a new mayor rose to the challenge. David L. Lawrence’s campaign slogan was “Smoke Must Go.” He built alliances with the private sector and in 1949, a comprehensive anti-pollution law was passed.

“Midday darkness” Credit: Smoke Control Lantern Slides, Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh (link)

Flash-forward to 2011. No one can now call Pittsburgh “The Smoky City,” but we’ve fallen behind in keeping our air clean and safe. The American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2011″ report rated Pittsburgh’s air quality as “the nation’s third most polluted area for short-term particle pollution for the second year in a row.” Again, we face a risk to both the health and lives of our residents and to our economic prosperity.

One form of particle pollution is diesel emissions — these contain over 40 toxic air contaminants, carcinogens, ozone smog-forming compounds, and fine particulate matter (“soot”). Exposure to fine particles is known to cause asthma attacks, heart attacks, lung cancer, strokes, and even premature deaths. The lifetime cancer risk from diesel soot in our community exceeds the risk of all other air toxins tracked by the EPA combined. Diesel soot cancer risk in the Pittsburgh area is 124 times greater than EPA’s acceptable cancer level of 1 in a million — our risk is 1 in 8,064. Additionally, emergency room visits for children with asthma-like symptoms is 400% higher in Pittsburgh than other cities. Now, imagine you have a company looking to start-up or relocate your business. How likely would you be to choose a city with the third highest short-term particle pollution? How likely would you be to want to move your family to a city with record levels of asthma-like symptoms for kids?

Again, a challenge needed to be met. An EPA study showed that the construction sector creates between 32% and 37% of all mobile source emissions. Moreover, when construction vehicles are used in publicly-funded projects, we are paying for them — with our tax dollars — to pollute our air. Hence, the Clean Air Act.

The Clean Air Act is our city’s first clean-air bill since the era of late Mayor David Lawrence. A year in the making, it requires contractors working on publicly-funded construction projects budgeted at $2,500,000 or more in the City of Pittsburgh to use cleaner diesel fuel and to have pollution controls on their vehicles and equipment. It’s estimated that this will reduce the soot from heavy equipment by 85% or more (vehicles and equipment used on public construction will, of course, also end up being used on privately-funded projects).

The prime sponsor of the Clean Air Act is Councilman Bill Peduto. Initial co-sponsors on Pittsburgh City Council included Bruce Kraus, Doug Shields and Natalia Rudiak, and were later joined by Darlene Harris and Theresa Smith. The Clean Air Act was passed unanimously by City Council on Tuesday, July 12th. But, just as in Lawrence’s time, legislation like this required a coalition of support and this one included labor, business, environmental, faith, advocacy and community groups — 42 in total.

The list of supporters includes: Pittsburgh UNITED (comprised of ACTION United, Clean Water Action, Group Against Smog and Pollution, Hill District Consensus Group, Mon Valley Unemployed Committee, Pittsburgh Branch NAACP, Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, SEIU, Sierra Club, and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23, Ironworkers Local 3, Just Harvest, United Steelworkers); GTECH; 9Mile Run Watershed Association; Sustainable Pittsburgh; One Hill Coalition; PennEnvironment; Urban Green Growth Collaborative; RePower America; Turtle Creek Watershed; Blue Green Alliance; United Jewish Federation Environmental Committee; Three Rivers Wet Weather; American Rivers; Bioneers; Northside Common Ministries; 3 Rivers Water Keeper; Pink Coat Communications; CHEC; Friend’s Meeting House; Workers United; Women for a Healthy Environment; Penn Future; Women and Girls Foundation; One Pittsburgh; Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania; Bike Pittsburgh; Conservation Consultants, Inc.; Royal Tribe Music; Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition; Small World One Daycare Center.

You can view the Clean Air Act here and the companion “10 Year Clean Diesel Policy” Resolution here.

Congratulations and thanks to all the supporters. And, congratulations to the residents of the City of Pittsburgh who will reap the benefits of cleaner air!

End of the Day, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from t3knomanser’s photostream