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Panel to discuss Libby's air quality

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| January 19, 2009 11:00 PM

When an air quality alert banned Libby-area residents from using wood-burning stoves for three days last October, upset residents rallied at the courthouse.

They had many concerns – the county’s method of notification, why they couldn’t use their stoves and what the alert meant for their health, among others.

Thursday’s air quality meeting, to be held in the Little Theatre at 7 p.m., will feature a panel discussion to answer residents’ concerns. The meeting, which was rescheduled after being snowed out in December, will have representatives from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the University of Montana and the county’s Environmental Health Department.

“Our main focus is to provide an opportunity for people to ask questions,” said Kathi Hooper, director of the Lincoln County Environmental Health Department. “There seems to be confusion on where these rules come from and what it is that is being regulated.”

The Environmental Protection Agency sets the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS, and each state is required to enforce the measure. Through a contract with the state, Lincoln County officials regulate county air quality standards.

At the meeting Hooper will speak briefly about Libby’s history of air quality control and introduce an additional method the county obtained for notifying the public about air quality alerts.

Dr. Brad Black will speak of the health effects he sees in patients on poor air quality days.

DEQ representatives will discuss the specifics of NAAQS, and state and county roles in regulation.

“We’re going to give a regulatory overview of PM2.5 – what is it and what sources are responsible for PM2.5 emissions,” said Eric Merchant of DEQ’s air resources management bureau. “I will talk about National Ambient Standards and Libby’s specific history with compliance and noncompliance.”

PM2.5 is particulate matter that is about 1/30th the size of an average human hair. The EPA tightened its standards in September 2006 to allow only 35 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter in a 24-hour test. The new standard cut nearly in half the amount of allowed emissions.

Tony Ward, a professor at the Center for Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Montana, will present results from air quality testing he has performed in five communities throughout the state.

“I will be showing that in each of the communities across the western Rockies, wood smoke is the biggest source of PM matter,” Ward said.

According to Ward’s study, 82 percent of PM2.5 in Libby comes from wood smoke.

Ward will compare Libby’s precipitation, wind speed and temperatures with the other communities to show why meeting air quality standards is a challenge in the area. 

“Libby has a lot less wind compared to other communities and the wind is what blows the pollution out of a valley a lot of times,” Ward said.

Ward performed air quality testing before and after the city’s woodstove changeout program, which replaced or repaired more than 1,000 wood-burning stoves from 2005-07, making them cleaner burning and EPA-certified.

Testing revealed that air quality in Libby has dramatically improved since 2005, meaning that October’s air quality alert was a result of the EPA’s tightened standards, not declining air quality.

In fact, Hooper believes that based on the most recent numbers, Lincoln County will meet the EPA’s standards and be designated as an attainment area.

In December, the EPA released a report naming Lincoln County as one of 211 counties or parts of counties that didn’t meet standards, but designation will not be effective until April, giving the EPA time to consider 2008 data. 

“Based on our last three years,” said Hooper, “I expect us to be in attainment, just barely.”

If Lincoln County meets the EPA’s standards, the county will not have to implement additional air quality control methods, says Hooper. That means that Lincoln County will not have to consider banning or regulating wood-burning stoves, a measure implemented in Missoula in 1994.