Pennsylvania

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DEP: Philadelphia region’s air quality is improving

The former Sunoco Refinery, now known as Philadelphia Energy Solutions, in South Philadelphia sits on the bank of the Schuylkill River.

Emma Lee/for NewsWorks/WHYY

The former Sunoco Refinery, now known as Philadelphia Energy Solutions, in South Philadelphia sits on the bank of the Schuylkill River.

Living in and around a major city, some amount of air pollution comes with the territory. But the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection says Philadelphia’s air is getting cleaner.

One pollutant in particular has been a problem in the five-county region that stretches from Chester to Bucks. It’s called “fine particulate matter” or PM2.5 and comes from dust, soot, smoke and droplets of liquid that get suspended in the air. About one third the size of a human hair, it can cause serious health problems like asthma, bronchitis and painful breathing, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Philadelphia region is considered a “nonattainment area” because of past violations of two of the EPA’s standards for PM2.5 pollution.

However, Joyce Epps who heads up the DEP’s Bureau of Air Quality says things have improved. Air monitoring since 2000 has showed a decrease in fine particulate matter. Over the last two years, data shows the region has started meeting two of the EPA’s standards from 1997 and 2006. The region has not yet met the EPA’s most recent 2012 standard for PM2.5.

“You have both federal and state requirements that have resulted in reductions in fine particulate matter and their precursor emissions,” Epps said in a phone interview. “You also have the retirement, deactivation or shutdown of certain coal-fired power plants.”

Now, the DEP is asking the federal government to move the Philadelphia region out of the nonattainment area for the two standards it is meeting.

“We want the public to know that there have been significant improvements in air quality and because of those improvements in air quality, we’re asking EPA to re-designate the five-county Philadelphia area to attainment of the standard,” said Epps.

That means companies that build new pollution sources, such as a new power plant, will not be subject to the same strict requirements as they would have been. However, but the department does have to show the EPA it can continue to meet the standards and keep pollution down for at least the next 10 years.

The DEP will hold a hearing on that plan in Norristown on June 12. You can read the DEP’s re-designation plan here. 

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