Keeping the Big Sky Clear

By Beacon Staff

Everyone from high school students to community groups are getting involved in air quality study in the Flathead Valley, as testing for one University of Montana ends and another begins.

Tony Ward, a UM research assistant professor, made a dual-purpose trip last week, introducing Whitefish High School chemistry students to an air quality sampling program and collecting months of samples from the North Fork Road Coalition for Health and Safety. “The studies deal with different sizes of particulate matter, but both types contribute to air pollution and can be dangerous to your health,” Ward said.

Whitefish chemistry students join about 300 other students from high schools across western Montana and Idaho to measure particulate matter within their homes and other locations in the community. UM began the program, Air Toxics Under the Big Sky, five years ago with one Missoula student, and has since used student research to study respiratory health and pinpoint the main cause of air pollution in western Montana, woodstoves.

Ward introduced the students to the physical dangers of particulate matter, namely asthma, and said he hoped their research would add more information to disturbing numbers Libby High School students found in previous years: Indoor air pollutants were seven times worse than outdoor pollutants. In fact, Ward said, before student research drove the town to get rid of hundreds of woodstoves, Libby’s air quality was worse than more populous areas like New York, Detroit and Southern California. “They were passing EPA regulations and we weren’t,” Ward said.

Whitefish and other areas in western Montana are on the edge of exceeding standards for both the state’s Department of Environmental Quality and national EPA standards for air quality, Ward said. “There is a need in this area to identify the causes for poor air quality and address them in order to avoid negative health affects,” he said.

According to the DEQ, particulate matter in Whitefish and Kalispell is elevated, but has not violated the standards yet. The three-year average for daily data from 2004 to 2006 is 23.8 in Whitefish and 21.6 in Kalispell. The standard maximum is 35. Libby is in violation, with a 43.1 average, but Bob Jeffrey, a DEQ air quality specialist, said those numbers are expected to decrease the effects of a decrease in woodstoves takes effect.

There is no particulate matter data for Columbia Falls, but DEQ plans to start monitoring there in 2008, Jeffrey said.

Members of the NFRCHS were worried enough to dole out $8,750 of their own money and collect an additional $1,250 from area businesses and agencies to hire UM to conduct an air quality study on their road. “We put our money where our mouth was,” chairman Bob Grimaldi said. “In the beginning, when a lot of us moved up here, the dust was fine, we could tolerate it, but over the years the road has been allowed to degrade so much that it’s essentially intolerable and very dangerous.”

Since last August the group has used three monitors to record over 30 outdoor samples and about another 12 inside vehicles while driving on the road. Each sample is a 24-hour recording of particulate matter that is downloaded from the machine onto a computer and then transmitted to UM.

Grimaldi said the group’s main concerns are respiratory health, driving visibility and air and water quality. And, while members of NFRCHS aren’t in consensus over a solution, they agree that the study will hopefully help them find one. “I hope the study will prove the level of dust created far exceeds any standard set by DEQ or the EPA, and hopefully the DEQ will recognize the standard is far exceeded and become a little more aggressive in getting the county to do what they should’ve done before. And I hope the county will see the scientific data and sit back and say, ‘Wow, we better do something about this.’”

Ward will analyze the North Fork data over the next few months and have a report for NFRCHS by Jan. 15. NFRCHS has also hired an organization experienced in conflict resolution to “work with us over the winter to get everyone in agreement so that we can sit down with all the involved groups when we get the results of the study,” Grimaldi said.

“I have no illusions that a solution will come quickly, but hopefully this will force everyone to realize there is a problem and at least begin working toward that solution.”