Allegheny County should let Clean Air Fund money flow to projects, audit says

Emissions rise from U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works on Jan. 18, 2023. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Millions of dollars that the county collects in relation to its air pollution regulations sits unspent while area air fails to meet standards, Controller Corey O’Connor contends. The county executive pledges to work with communities on air quality.

by Briana Bindus, PublicSource

Allegheny County should loosen its grip on Clean Air Fund spending, enabling the millions of dollars amassed through its emissions control initiatives to support community projects related to air quality, according to an audit released by the county controller on Tuesday.

The Allegheny County Health Department’s [ACHD] Clean Air Fund collects fines and penalties from polluters in the county that violate regulations or exceed permitted emissions. The money is designated to help educate the public on air pollution and improve county air quality via reduction or prevention projects and conduct research, along with other efforts. 

Following a PublicSource story on the distribution of the fund, Allegheny County Controller Corey O’Connor conducted a performance audit of the Clean Air Fund. 

Examining the period from January 2021 through September 2023, the audit showed that more money went toward ACHD’s normal Air Quality Program operating costs than to community projects. 

“Every dollar that we spend counts on helping marginalized areas where there’s been pollution that’s occurred for years,” O’Connor said in an interview. “There’s a good list of money that’s gone out … and it’s great. Pat yourself on the back for giving some money out, but we still have a long way to go to solve this problem.” 

A spokesperson for new Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato said in a statement that the department “has taken steps to improve the fund in the past few years, [but] there is still more to do to ensure expenditures are effective and impactful.” The administration plans to work “to ensure the fund is used for its stated purpose of improving air quality in Allegheny County.”

Operating over community

The audit reported that the fund’s cash balance has hovered around $10 million. Even as penalty collections have increased, the portion spent on air-quality-related community projects has plunged to 1.6% in 2023. 

The Air Quality Program is permitted to use 5% of the preceding year’s Clean Air Fund balance to cover operating costs. Last year, the department proposed to use 25% of the Clean Air Fund on operations, but the Board of Health did not approve

The audit found that the program has repeatedly gone over its 5% allocated portion of the Clean Air fund. 

From 2019 through 2022, the program received 44% of the total Clean Air Fund expenditures, adding up to nearly $2.1 million. 

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