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Officials, residents discuss air quality

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| January 26, 2009 11:00 PM

The cleanliness of the air in the Libby area has been a longstanding, delicate issue for residents. Throw in woodstoves and the inability to use them during air alerts and those issues intensify.

Last week at a meeting for residents who live within Lincoln County’s air quality control district, about 120 people showed up to voice their concerns and ask questions.

“We are protecting human life. This is a ‘we’ thing,” Bob Habeck of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality said during last Thursday’s meeting. “I’m not here to say I’m big government to take away your woodstove.”

An October air quality alert banned residents from using wood-burning stoves for about 48 hours when PM2.5 emissions – particulate matter about the size of 1/30th of a hair – were getting close to surpassing federally acceptable levels. Residents, especially those who did not have an alternative source of heat, were angered and confused by the alert.

The boundary of the air quality control district outlines Libby’s geographic bowl, which extends south to Libby Creek, northeast to Canoe Gulch and northwest to mile marker 26 on Highway 2.

Thursday’s panel explained the science of Libby’s air pollutants, the health effects and Libby’s history of air quality standards and regulations. A question-and-answer session that lasted for more than an hour followed.

Some portions of the presentation visibly amazed attendees while others displayed anger and skepticism.

Panelists agreed that Lincoln County’s control methods – such as a restrictive open burning policy and the woodstove changeout program – are working. Air quality has improved every year since 2005, but federal regulations have become more stringent.

“The control strategy is working,” Habeck said. “You’ve got to give it time to make it work.”

While the Environmental Protection Agency sets national air quality standards, Montana began managing its air quality program in 1972, and Lincoln County began contracting with the state in 1991, Habeck said during his presentation.

“These layers of government are working together to protect your health,” Habeck said.

According to a study performed by Tony Ward, professor at the Center for Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Montana, the county’s woodstove changeout program reduced PM2.5 emissions in homes by 70 percent. Most PM2.5 in Libby comes from wood-burning stoves.  

Ward performed tests on 20 homes before and after stove replacement. The average amount of PM2.5 in the home before the changeout was over 51 micrograms per cubic meter, compared to 15 after the changeout.

The EPA tightened its standards in September 2006 to only allow up to 35 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter in a 24-hour test and up to 15 in a three-year average.

“This is one of the most important studies we’ve done, in my opinion,” Ward said about the in-home tests. “Where do you spend most of your time? This is the air you’re actually breathing.”

Kathi Hooper, director of the county’s Department of Environmental Health, said that while cleaner-burning stoves have reduced indoor and outdoor pollution, their efficiency is not being optimized.

“The changeout isn’t the whole solution,” Hooper said. “People need to be educated on operation.”

Attendees were furnished with EPA-published handouts on how to maximize heat and reduce smoke. The handout suggests using dry, aged wood and beginning with a quick hot start, burning a small fire and not allowing the blaze to smolder.

Hooper pointed out that October’s air quality alert was the first that’s been called in the 12 years since the EPA began setting standards for PM2.5.

“It was our first try,” Hooper said. “We need to get better at notifying people.”

Libby-area residents can now sign up to receive a pre-recorded telephone message during an alert, in addition to an e-mail listserv, announcements on radio and flyers posted around town. Residents can also call the county’s air quality hotline or find it on the county’s website. 

Attendees had many questions such as how air monitors work and where they’re located, how the air quality control district was formed and why the Forest Service can perform open burning during months when Libby residents cannot.

The most emotional issue, however, involved wood-burning stoves.

“We’re not asking people to change over their heat,” Hooper said, “but there needs to be a backup in place.”

Hooper provided county and state forms to apply for financial assistance in gaining a secondary heat source in case of another air alert, or to get an EPA-certified wood-burning stove, as uncertified stoves are illegal.

The panel was asked if they know that Libby-area residents don’t want woodstove regulations.

 “I think that’s up for debate,” replied Hooper, who mentioned that although she received many calls about woodstoves in the days after the air quality alert, “I’m definitely getting more calls now about poor air quality.”

“My biggest fear is coming to a community and saying, ‘I’m taking away your freedom,’” Habeck said. “There is a reasonable solution to keep warm and have good health. I say that we together can meet the challenge.”

When asked where he sees federal regulations going in the future, Habeck replied, “If I had my crystal ball, I would say that air pollution standards over time will be more stringent.”