First air quality alert since 2008 goes smoother
| January 13, 2011 1:38 PM
The first air quality alert to ban the
use of woodstoves in the Libby area since city and county elected
officials amended their corresponding ordinances took place this
past Friday through Saturday morning.
Fine particulate levels, which mainly
originate from woodstove emissions, hovered in the “unhealthy for
sensitive groups” category from Thursday night into early Friday
morning, causing the Lincoln County Environmental Health Department
to announce the alert at 9 a.m. Friday. By 5 a.m. Saturday, the
particulates had almost been completely flushed out of the Libby
News of the alert aired on the local
radio stations, appeared on the newspaper website and was sent out
to those on the air quality e-mail list.
“Friday we tried to get the word out as
soon as possible, but that’s hard to do sometimes,” said Erik Leigh
of the Environmental Health Department.
Unlike the full-scale air quality alert
in October 2008 that caused locals to rally at the courthouse, last
Friday went fairly smoothly, Leigh said. He spent some time Friday
afternoon knocking on doors of houses with smoking chimneys. He
notified the occupants of the temporary woodstove ban.
“I talked to about five different
people,” he said. “There were a couple of them that weren’t exactly
happy, but they were understanding and everybody was more than
willing to cooperate.”
The public was more agreeable with the
woodstove ban this time around, he said, partly because he sends
out staged advisories to let the public know that particulate
levels are rising before they get to alert levels. In that way, he
said, residents are not taken off-guard and are able to help
prevent a ban on woodstoves. During advisories, he asks that those
with alternate heat sources refrain from burning or for those who
continue to use their woodstoves to burn hot and clean.
Another difference that may have
changed public reaction, he said, is that the Lincoln County
commissioners on Dec. 22 and the Libby City Council on Jan. 3
approved an amendment to their respective air quality ordinances to
allow an exemption for those whose sole source of heat comes from a
The sole-source exemption clause was
taken out of the county ordinance in 2006 to show state and federal
regulators that the local government was doing its best to meet
federal air quality standards. The county and city recently
restored the exemption through emergency ordinances – effective
immediately but due to expire by spring – in order to last through
To allow the exemption to stick, the
county must work with the Montana Department of Environmental
Quality and Environmental Protection Agency, which have in the past
resisted policy changes that would make regulations less stringent
in an area that struggles to meet air quality standards.
Of the five doors Leigh knocked on, he
came across one sole-source user. Environmental Health Department
officials are trying to get an accurate count of sole source users
in order to show state and federal regulators that the exemption
would not noticeably impact the air quality. In addition, officials
must know who does and does not have an alternate heat source in
order to enforce any future woodstove bans.
If the exemption becomes permanent, the
definition of “sole-source user” will have to be defined, Leigh
said. Some people’s homes are capable of being heated by an
alternate source, such as propane, but wood is all the residents
In the case of an empty propane tank,
he wouldn’t make residents burn out their fire that day, but he
still wouldn’t register them as sole-source users, he said.
But if a family says their electric
furnace doesn’t work, he asked, who is he to argue with them?
“It’s going to be something that’s
going to be very hard to determine in the future,” he said. “It’s
not something that’s written out – we don’t have any clear
guidelines on that.”
He recalls talking to homeowners with a
fireplace and a few old baseboard electric heaters. They argued
that the heaters weren’t enough to keep the house warm.
“I’m not going to go into your house
with a thermometer and try to determine how hot those electric
heaters are going to keep your house,” he said. “If I can decide
that it’s not sufficient I would register you as a
In addition, the county will have to
devise a plan to verify registered sole-source households, Leigh
To be put on the list, locals can give
their information to the Environmental Health Department at
293-7781, ext. 228.