Commissioners submit support for air quality redesignation

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The public comment period is currently open for those who wish to express their views on the the request for redesignation of the Libby non-attainment area to attainment by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. A redesignation could enable industry to locate to Libby that would have been unable to operate here under the existing air quality restrictions.

The period, which began Feb. 21, will end Saturday, March 23.

In 1987 and 1988, studies in the Libby area found significant air quality impact from road dust, industry, residential wood combustion and the use of fossil fuels such as propane in addition to vehicle exhaust. The major source of industrial impact on air quality identified in the DEQ studies was from Champion International.

As part of a control plan to improve air quality, the Lincoln County Health Department and City of Libby adopted rules related to burning of solid fuels, as well as road dust abatement measures.

Lincoln County Health Department Director Kathi Hooper said that measures taken beginning in the 1990s to improve air quality have brought the area well-within compliance.

Hooper said that Champion was the source of just under a third of the emissions that the DEQ identified in their studies. So, it is unlikely that a similar operation could be established in Libby without pushing the area back out of compliance with federal air quality standards.

“But there would be some room in the air shed once we were an attainment area,” she said.

Quality air

“What’s exciting about this to me is that next we’ll look at redesignation to 2.5,” she said. That is the point when it would be most likely that Libby could see new sources coming in.

Hooper said that the redesignation is part of a larger effort by the DEQ to respond to requests from across the state — beginning with Missoula in 2016 — by beginning to seek redesignations with the EPA for areas that had shown they were now in compliance with federal standards.

The topography and inversions that Libby experiences are part of the reason that Libby has had problems with air quality, Hooper said.

Other areas around the state may experience an inversion for a day or two, she said. “We can have inversions for weeks.”

During an inversion, the air high up in the atmosphere is warmer than the air beneath it. According to sciencing.com, this can be created by things such as the sun being low in the sky during winter months, thus heating the air higher in the atmosphere more than that close to the ground.

Since the normal cycle of warm air rising from the ground level into cooler areas above it is prevented by the inversion, air in the cooler, lower layer — along with any pollutants it holds, stays put.

“We’re a bit at the mercy of the weather and the topography,” Hooper said. “We don’t get wind, but then we don’t get good air quality.”

Impact

Hooper approached the Lincoln County Commissioners at their Feb. 27 meeting about the redesignation. She said that once the public comment period is over, the redesignation request will go to the governor to sign. After that, it goes to the EPA, and they will have 18 months to review the request.

Hooper said that it would likely be sometime in 2020 before the actual redesignation would be granted.

At the request of the county commissioners, Hooper drafted a letter of support for the commissioners to sign, stating that they support the redesignation. The commissioners signed that letter at their meeting this past Wednesday.

Hooper also drafted a letter of support at the commissioners’ request for the DEQ to treat the 2017 wildfires as an “exceptional event,” thus not counting the impact from the wildfires against the area for purposes of air quality compliance.

The commissioners signed that letter as well on Wednesday.

On Feb. 27, Hooper said that the county has not commented in the past on DEQ considerations of exceptional events, and that the DEQ had not failed to grant those considerations as exceptional events. But she noted that there would be no harm in expressing support.

“If somebody gives us the opportunity, and we don’t take advantage of the opportunity, eventually they’ll quit giving us the opportunity,” commissioner Jerry Bennett said.

The Libby PM10 redesignation request can be found online at http://deq.mt.gov/Public/publiccomment by scrolling down.

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