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Libby gets good news on air quality

by Brad FuquaWestern News
| October 13, 2009 12:00 AM

The positive effects of a wood stove changeout program were realized last week when the Environmental Protection Agency designated Libby as an attainment area that now meets federal air quality standards.

“It’s primarily because of the wood stove changeout program,” said Kathi Hooper of the Lincoln County Department of Environmental Health. “The certified wood stoves can have up to a 70-percent reduction in emissions compared to a non-certified stove. We did the changeout of approximately 1,200 wood stoves in our air pollution control district.”

Based on data from the past three years, Libby is now meeting the revised 24-hour fine particle – identified by the EPA as PM2.5 – air quality standard. The Libby area had been violating the standard based on data from 2005-07.

Data for the most recent three years is used and with the 2008 numbers in and the 2005 numbers out, Libby now meets the standard.

“We had a really good year last year,” Hooper said. “They always consider the previous three years of data … and it was very high in 2005.”

PM2.5 – approximately 1/30th the size of an average human hair – can aggravate heart and lung diseases and has been associated with a variety of serious health problems including heart attacks, chronic bronchitis and asthma.

Sources of PM2.5 include fuel combustion from wood burning, gasoline automobiles, diesel-powered vehicles such as trucks and busses, power plants and industrial processes.

In September 2006, the EPA dramatically strengthened the fine particle standards to protect public health, tightening the 24-hour standard from 65 to 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

“This is good news for the Libby citizens who have worked hard to reduce emissions of PM2.5” said Carol Rushin, Region 8's acting regional administrator. “The measures that have been taken to control PM2.5 have brought cleaner air to Libby.”

The 24-hour PM2.5 standard numbers have improved every year since 2005. The three-year average dropped from 41.3 (2005-07) to 34.4 (2006-08).

“We don’t have a lot of room between our current three-year average and the standard,” Hooper said. “We need to let people know that all of our hard work is paying off, but meeting the standard doesn’t mean doing away with the tools that have been shown so effective in improving our air quality.”

As a result, Hooper urges locals to go outside and inspect their chimneys and if still smoking, a change is needed to burn clean.

“We have had very positive responses to air advisories and we will continue to issue advisories when we are experiencing an extended period of inversion and the ventilation forecast is poor,” Hooper said. “During air advisories, people are urged to use an alternative heat source if they have one available.”

Hooper added that a communitywide response to an air advisory can prevent the need to call an air alert and keep Libby within EPA air quality standards.