Philadelphia Air Quality Soon Back On Track, City Says

By Leslie A. Pappas

Hundreds of old oil-heated row homes, ships in need of fresh paint, diesel-fueled cargo handlers, and a whole mess of cars, trucks, and buses barreling down Interstate 95 are among the many air pollution reduction targets in the City of Brotherly Love.

Philadelphia’s air quality violates new federal air quality standards for ozone, the Environmental Protection Agency announced in early May.

The Philadelphia region—which according to the EPA spans from Cecil, Md., and Wilmington, Del., to Atlantic City, N.J.—has fallen from “attainment” to the “marginal non-attainment” category. Poor air quality can have health impacts by limiting lung function and aggravating asthma.

The EPA’s new target for air pollution concentration is 70 parts per billion. Monitoring in the region from 2014 to 2016 showed that Bucks and Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania had the highest values at 77 parts per billion, and monitors in Camden County in New Jersey showed 75 parts per billion, according to the EPA’s technical support documents. The EPA’s marginal non-attainment category is between 71 and 81 parts per billion, according to the agency’s ruling.

The city has three years to get itself back on track. But are city officials scrambling to make changes?

“Not really,” James Garrow, spokesman for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, told Bloomberg Environment. “We feel that our current activities have put us on track to meet that level by the three-year deadline.”

Local Enforcement

Philadelphia’s push for clean air started in 1979 after the EPA put the metro region—which at the time included the city, surrounding counties, and nearby locales—into its “severe non-attainment” category. Regulations implementing changes in the 1980s and 1990s are still in force and will likely be enough to get the city back into attainment within three years, Garrow said.

“We have an anti-backsliding rule,” he said. “Any regulations that you put in force to get you out of non-attainment, you have to keep them in place. We can’t loosen them back up.”

Philadelphia works with regional and national planning organizations, and the commonwealth’s Department of Environmental Protection, Garrow said.

The city enforces EPA regulations within the city limits and in some cases also has developed its own regulations for certain industries that don’t exist elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

For example, Philadelphia has its own regulations for Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturing Industry to cover ship painting at the Philly Shipyard and Philadelphia Ship Repair, phenol production at the AdvanSix’s Frankford Facility, and crude oil refining at Energy Transfer Partners LP’s Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) Refining Complex.

Fuel Oils

Using cleaner forms of fuel oil is one target that Philadelphia has been working on for years. The efforts have made an impact on ozone, but it’s taken time, especially since many older homes in Philadelphia use fuel oil for heat.

“Philadelphia is an old city,” Garrow said. “It’s not something that we can just flip a switch and it stops happening.”

The city targeted fuel oils because some of the heavier ones traditionally used in commercial furnaces, boilers, and other combustion units contain sulfur, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and nickel, according to Garrow. Residual oil has notably high concentrations of nickel, a toxic heavy metal.

Six Grades

There are six grades of fuels: the boiling point and carbon chain length increases with each fuel oil number.

The city already drastically lowered the amount of sulfur allowed in No. 2 fuel oil to reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, and other greenhouse gases. Philadelphia’s regulation for No. 2 fuel oil is actually more stringent than the Pennsylvania’s, Garrow said.

Now a newly proposed regulation would phase out all No. 4, 5, and 6 fuel oils in Philadelphia County, with a proposed ban on the use of these oils effective July 1, 2019.

The ban would simply continue a trend that’s already happening, because No. 4, 5, and 6 oils are rarely used, according to John Huber, president of the National Oilheat Research Alliance, a government program focused on research, education, energy efficiency, and safety of oil heat.

Most regions have been phasing them out during the past five or 10 years thanks to new technologies, Huber told Bloomberg Environment. New York City, for example, has been phasing them out over the past few years, an effort that’s met little resistance because most users already switched to using No. 2 fuel oil or natural gas.

It’s possible that some old, large apartment buildings in Philadelphia could still be using the oils, or maybe an oil-fired power plant might use a No. 6 oil as a backup, Huber said. But overall, very few companies would be affected.

“It’s been pretty much phased down,” he said.

Diesel Engines

Most of the air pollution in Philadelphia comes from road traffic, which is primarily under the EPA’s jurisdiction, so Pennsylvania’s environmental agency is limited in pursuing further regulations in that category, Shader said.

Pennsylvania will have to evaluate current regulations to ensure that the Philadelphia region will meet standards in three years, Shader said.

The city’s health department is specifically working to control such mobile diesel sources as construction equipment, trucks, buses, port cargo handling equipment, forklifts, and airport ground access vehicles, the source of a lot of Philadelphia’s emissions.

Diesel engines account for 25 percent of the nitrogen oxides pollution in the city.

The commonwealth is using funds it recently got from a $188 million settlement with Volkswagen Group of America to finance grant and rebate programs that will help Philadelphia and other areas replace diesel engines with cleaner alternatives, Neil Shader, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection press secretary, told Bloomberg Environment in an email May 21.