A senior fellow with the Checks and Balances Project says that the president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce refused to answer questions (Vimeo/Scott Peterson)

For years, the air over central Pittsburgh has ranked among the country’s dirtiest, with haze and soot that regularly trigger spikes in asthma attacks, especially among the urban poor. So it might have seemed odd that a black business group would choose this spot to denounce proposed restrictions on smog.

But that’s exactly what the head of the National Black Chamber of Commerce did this month. Chamber President Harry C. Alford appeared before some of Pittsburgh’s African American leaders to urge opposition to a White House plan for tougher limits on air pollution. Then he went on radio to deliver the same appeal.

“Why do we impose these ­massive, arbitrary rules?” Alford asked.

Despite the unlikely venue, the message was anything but unusual for Alford, a veteran of multiple campaigns to quash regulations intended to improve air quality or fight climate change. Since early summer, Alford has delivered the same pitch in multiple cities, blasting a plan to impose limits on ozone, a pollutant that contributes to urban smog and aggravates breathing disorders, particularly among the elderly and very young.

Alford’s message — that the proposed regulations would hurt the economy and stifle job growth — is nearly identical to the one being broadcast widely by the rules’ opponents from business and industry. The National Association of Manufacturers has poured millions of dollars into a television ad campaign criticizing the proposal, which the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to adopt in final form Wednesday.

Coal spills out from a tower into a large pile at an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, W. Va. (Luke Sharett/Bloomberg)

But while the TV ads command the most attention, a more subtle effort is underway to reduce support for the regulations among blacks, Latinos and even the elderly — groups not usually regarded as natural allies for corporations fighting air-pollution laws.

The National Black Chamber of Commerce, which acknowledges receiving strong financial backing from Exxon Mobil and other ­fossil-fuel interests, has specifically tailored its message to African American audiences, drawing anger from environmental and public health groups that say urban blacks would be among the biggest beneficiaries of tighter regulations.

“The dirtiest utility plants pollute and hurt black communities,” said Evlondo Cooper, a researcher for the Checks and Balances Project, a watchdog group that investigates the use of corporate money in anti-clean-energy campaigns. Cooper, whose nonprofit organization has staged videotaped confrontations with Alford at two of his recent speaking events, said groups such as the NBCC have helped foster perceptions of a sharp divide among African Americans over whether stronger air-quality laws are needed.

“He doesn’t speak for black people,” Cooper said, referring to Alford, “and nothing about his support for the fossil-fuel lobby or his attacks on clean energy has been helpful to our community.”

Alford, who has boasted of accepting money from oil and other fossil-fuel companies, declined to respond to repeated requests for comment.

He has argued that environmental regulations often harm minorities by slowing job growth.

“I think you can have a balance,” Alford told a Pittsburgh radio station during his Sept. 2 visit. “What’s unfair is that the rules and targets keep changing.”

‘The strictest ever imposed’

The focus of Alford’s latest attack is an EPA proposal that would lower permissible limits for smog in cities across the country. Agency officials face a court-ordered deadline to promulgate a new ozone standard by Wednesday, but the law gives the agency some discretion in deciding exactly how tough it will be. A preliminary proposal unveiled last year called for changing the ozone limit from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to between 65 and 70.

A lower number could have significant economic consequences: Cities that consistently fail to meet the standard could eventually face restrictions on certain kinds of industrial development.

Industry trade groups point out that many U.S. cities are still struggling to meet the 75-ppb standard introduced in 2008. ­Industry-sponsored studies predict widespread economic disruption if the limits are tightened.

“Adding to the absurdity of EPA’s position is the fact that current standards — the strictest ever imposed — are working to improve air quality even though they have not been fully implemented,” said Howard Feldman, senior director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group. “Further lowering the standard could significantly chill economic investment and activity across the nation.”

The EPA, backed by environmental and public health groups, points to studies identifying smog as a significant contributor to illnesses and premature deaths, particularly among groups living in urban centers or near power plants that burn coal.

EPA Associate Administrator Thomas Reynolds said the current spate of industry attack ads recycles the same dire warnings that critics used the last time the standards were changed. “They routinely trot out the same tired playbook and rhetoric, and every time they’re proven wrong,” he said.

A familiar role

The industry campaign was just beginning to intensify when Alford began his speaking tour. The founder and president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce traveled over the summer to Illinois, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania for a series of events, several of them coordinated or supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, another fierce opponent of the rule.

Attendees at a free luncheon on Aug. 24 in Columbus, Ohio, heard Alford blast the EPA’s ozone proposal as “one of most expensive regulations ever issued” by the U.S. government.

“It would plunge the majority of the country into ‘non-attainment,’ meaning that communities would face enormous regulatory hurdles every time they wanted to build something,” he said.

It was a vintage performance by Alford, the dominant figure behind the NBCC and a staunch opponent of environmental regulations dating back to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The NBCC was established in 1993 and boasts nearly 190 chapters nationwide, but Alford has personally led the group since its founding and has appointed family members, including his wife, to key leadership posts.

In his frequent essays and blog postings, Alford has referred to the EPA as “wicked’ and a “monster” that is “out of control.” He flatly dismisses the notion of environmental justice — the idea that minorities suffer unfairly from pollution — as a “farce.”

“Many naive blacks have bought the lie — hook, line and sinker,” he says.

Alford’s organization declines to give detailed information about the NBCC’s membership or sources of income, although records filed by the group show more than $800,000 in contributions over the past decade from Exxon Mobil. At the group’s 2015 national conference in August, a list of sponsors given to attendees included a number of major fossil-fuel interests, including Koch Industries, owned by oil magnates and conservative activists Charles and David Koch.

Such donations make up as much as 80 percent of the group’s revenue in some years, tax records show, and the NBCC has channeled its money into causes that favor fossil-fuel interests. For example, the NBCC, gave $50,000 last year to a Florida organization that sought to impose additional costs and restrictions on homeowners who want to install solar panels on their roofs.

A repeated theme in Alford’s speeches and writings is that excessive regulations have prevented African Americans from achieving their potential. He argued in a 2014 op-ed article that oil, gas and coal were largely responsible for lifting freed slaves out of poverty.

“Fossil fuels have been our economic friend,” he wrote.

Such stances have angered not only environmental groups but also other African American business organizations, which say Alford’s views represent at best a small fraction of black business owners and entrepreneurs. Ron Busby, president of the U.S. Black Chamber of Commerce, a rival group, said internal surveys have consistently shown high levels of support among his group’s members for strong environmental regulations.

“As a child I had asthma, and I remember my parents saying it was a black disease, because that’s what we thought, growing up,” Busby said. “Anyone who’s saying it’s not affecting our community isn’t speaking on behalf of black people.”