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First air quality alert since 2008 goes smoother

by Canda Harbaugh & Western News
| 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

air.

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

woodstove.

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

winter.

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

can afford.

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

sole-source.”

In addition, the county will have to

devise a plan to verify registered sole-source households, Leigh

said.

To be put on the list, locals can give

their information to the Environmental Health Department at

293-7781, ext. 228.