Waking up and breathing in that fresh mountain air might be hazardous to your health.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has identified Hamilton, along with three other Montana communities, as having a high probability of failing to meet new federal air-quality standards.
Missoula, Libby and Butte are the other communities on the list. Based on air monitoring data collected from 2003 through 2005, the DEQ currently projects violations of the 24-hour air-quality standards in those cities. Particulate matter is one of six criteria air pollutants, and there are two kinds of particle pollution: fine particles that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller; and inhalable course particles that are smaller than 10 micrometers and larger than 2.5 micrometers.
According to the DEQ, particulate matter is a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets in the air. When inhaled, these particles can reach the deepest regions of the lungs. Exposure to particle pollution is linked to a variety of significant health problems, ranging from aggravated asthma to premature death in people with heart and lung disease. Particle pollution also is the main cause of visibility impairment in the nation's cities and national parks.
The data also indicates that the Helena, Flathead and Gallatin valleys are dangerously close to violating the new air quality standards.
“The standards are designed to be protective of public health,” said Bob Jeffrey of DEQ air resources. “Even for sensitive members of the population, such as people with asthma, (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or heart disease, the air quality should be acceptable for them. The level we're at now, there's definitely going to be an increased risk.”
Under the revised standards, the 24-hour fine-particle standard was tightened from 65 micrograms per cubic meter to 35 micrograms per cubic meter. Hamilton's average is 39 micrograms per cubic meter, well above the standard. Butte's average is 37 micrograms per cubic meter, Libby's average is 44 and Missoula's is 46.
“Most of our problems we have with meeting these standards comes during winter months,” Jeffrey said. “We do have some very high levels in the summertime with wildfires, especially in the Bitterroot Valley. But that said, with forest fire smoke, the Environmental Protection Agency lets us designate those bad air-quality days as exceptional event data. That data gets flagged in the EPA's national database and it doesn't count against us for compliance determinations.”
Jeffrey attributes the high winter pollution numbers to human activity in combination with valley inversions.
“The particulate matter is generated by tailpipes of motor vehicles, home heating systems, wood stoves and fireplaces are notoriously dirty sources of fine particulate matter,” Jeffrey said. “They're very, very highly polluting.”
Unlike Missoula, there isn't any big single industrial pointsource that people can try to blame, Jeffrey said.
“Lots of people have moved into the Bitterroot over the last 30 years and the population has gone up tremendously,” Jeffrey said. “Lots of new homes with woodstoves or fireplaces, lots of people driving back and forth to Missoula every day … We have met the enemy and he is us.”
That human activity is exacerbated by the temperature inversions seen by many western valleys.
“A layer of cold air sinks down close to the ground and gets overridden by warm air,” Jeffrey said. “That's kind of like a saucepan that you pour water in. You turn on the burner and it starts to boil. On a good day, that steam or pollution goes up and drifts away. But a temperature inversion is like putting a lid on the saucepan. The pollution builds up and the air just gets dirtier and dirtier. A lot of what you're seeing that you think is fog is really air pollution.”
According to Jeffrey, the inversion and the pollution problems are not singularly a Montana phenomenon.
“We've been monitoring cities all over the west for the past 10 years or so,” Jeffrey said. “In Utah, the whole area from Logan up in the north all the way through St. George, the entire Wasatch front, is going to be in violation of these new standards. The whole Boise-metro area will be in violation. Spokane may not make it. The Denver metro area may not make it, again. Tucson probably won't make it. It's not just a little problem that Montana's got to deal with. It's much bigger than that. People need to get going now.”
Jeffrey asserted that we could head this off and avoid being in violation.
“Otherwise, its hundreds of thousands of dollars of work,” he said. “We really don't want to go there. An ounce of prevention beats a ton of cure, and if we can stay within the standards and comply with the federal government, it's much, much better.”
Jeffrey said that the best thing concerned citizens can do is contact their local elected officials and say that they would like a local air quality program to help clean up the air here in the valley.
“We're working with local groups to try to identify sources of pollution and do something to reduce the effect,” Jeffrey said. “Missoula County has a program, and we've been working with the Ravalli County Health Department and trying to get a program started there. We've had preliminary meetings.”
Although Missoula's program has been in place for about 30 years, those same 30 years have seen a population explosion.
“We keep adding more and more controls, but we're also adding more and more people,” he said. “We're hoping to stay ahead of the curve, and we aren't totally successful here.”
Should those Montana communities not comply with the standards by the review period, which will take place in about two years, then the federal government can come in and write its own implementation plan, said Jeffrey.
“If we fail, then we have to write a cleanup plan and submit it to the EPA, who then has to approve it,” Jeffrey said. “If we don't submit a plan at all or if we do and he EPA says it's not good enough and reject it, that's when the federal government can come in and take over. They can sanction the states and withhold federal grant dollars to local DEQ-type programs. And another thing that really gets people's attention is they can withhold federal highway dollars, and in Montana that's a big deal. A lot of the money we have for highway projects comes from the federal government.”
Most importantly though, Jeffrey stressed that the standards are set by the federal government to protect human health.
“That is the thing people need to remember,” Jeffrey said. “We're not here to make life miserable for somebody, that's not the point. It's to protect public health.”
Reporter Kristin Knight can be reached at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org