Filing a Right to Know Request

If you are experiencing some environmental harm and you want to get to the bottom of it then you might want to start by filing a Right to Know (RTK) request with the proper local, state, or federal agency. Right to Know requests provide individuals with an opportunity to obtain any “open records,” as defined by each states laws.  Depending on the state, the laws that guide your right to know information may be called “Freedom of Information Act”, “Open Records Laws”, or “Right to Know Laws”.  For further reading on these laws check out the links for our services areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

In this article we will walk you through our recent Right to Know request filing to the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) in Pittsburgh, PA and how we deciphered the information we received.  We want to caution that this is not a one size fits all process.  Every Right to Know request will have a slightly different process and provide different guidelines that you must work within.  Our hope is that after reading this article you will have a better idea of where to look for those guidelines and understand how the general process of asking and receiving this information works.

Every Right to Know request starts with determining what information you want and who has the information you are looking for.  The Pennsylvania office of open records has produced this helpful list of common requests and the agency in which you would find that information. In our case we wanted to know specific smoke stack monitoring data for the U.S. Steel Mon Valley Works. A fire on December 24th, 2018 destroyed its desulfurization equipment which we had reason to believe was causing an air pollution event in Allegheny County, PA.  Within the county all Title V EPA air permits are handled through the Allegheny County Health Department.  This exception is also the case one other county in Pennsylvania: Philadelphia county where the air permits are controlled by the Philadelphia Air Management Services. 

Now that we know what information we want - stack monitoring data for the U.S. Steel Mon Valley Work - and also know which agency controls it - The Allegheny County Health Department - the next step is to figure out whether this information is public knowledge. All Title V permitted emitters are required to monitor their own air emissions with in-stack equipment. This is required in order to provide clear source pollution levels before it enters the atmosphere, however they are not always required to submit this data to their respective agencies and therefore not all of this information is available to the public. Every permit is different and you may have to start by filing Right to Know request for a permit before you can file for any other documents. In our case, thanks to GASP all of the US Steel Air Permits are Public Information online: Clairton, Irvin, Edgar Thompson. In addition, U.S. Steel was under enforcement orders for past violations of a permit so their requirements for reporting are stricter than facilities in compliance. Tip: you will find those new reporting requirements within the enforcement order itself and you can ask for whatever reports that they require of a facility.

This is a good time to talk about the importance of keeping the scope of your Right to Know request as specific as possible.  Remember that all Right to Know requests are fulfilled by the employees of the given agency and a request that is too broad will take up valuable resources.  Right to Know requests for extremely large amounts of data could also cause the agency to charge you for their time.  Every agency has different protocols so be sure to review their rules thoroughly before submitting your request.  In general, it is a good idea to respect employees time by starting small and focusing on specific timelines, facilities, or data that you know will be available. By going the extra mile to make sure you are clearly asking for a specific and manageable set of data you will ensure a faster process that will return exactly what you are looking for.

Upon further research we found that a recent enforcement order declared by ACHD, required that U.S. Steel submit weekly stack monitoring reports until all desulfurization equipment was restored.  This provided a very specific and reasonable ask and then in about two weeks’ time we received a response with exactly what we had asked for, 3 months worth of daily Sulphur dioxide monitoring data.

The final step is to compare the emissions to the permit. Often the data provided in a Right to Know request will not match up nicely with the information provided in the permits.  For instance, the data from the monitoring reports grouped U.S. Steel’s sources of pollution in different “units” while the permits deal with each source individually. To accurately compare the monitoring data with the permitted emissions we would have to regroup individual sources to match the units provided in our Right to Know.  In addition, all permits deal with pollution a tons per year basis while our monitor data was a on a pounds per day, so we would have to do some conversions.

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After regrouping and converting we found that the situation was troubling. In the 3 months after the fire at Clairton Coke Works there wasn’t a single day when any of the facilities were within their estimated daily emission limits for sulphur dioxide.  On average the best performing desulfurization group of source (Unit 1) was emitting 2.69x its estimated daily emissions limit, the highest group (The Irving Flare) was averaging 7.5x its estimated daily limit.  That means, technically, that “Unit” of stationary sources had already exceeded its yearly permit by the end of February.

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We have provided all the data we received for your review here so that you can see the numbers for yourself.  In addition, we are also sharing our converted permit data side-by-side with the emission data (above) so you can see exactly what we saw. We are hoping by spreading this information we can help residents.

  1. Feel comfortable with the Right to Know process and take on the task of filing Right to Know requests themselves

  2. Understand exactly how much sulphur dioxide coming out of the Mon Valley Works between December 24th, 2018 and April 1st, 2019.

Please be aware that we are not making any claims of actual violations. All opinions in this piece are purely speculative. For more information or questions about the process feel free to submit a comment.