New Stoves Bring Cleaner Air to Libby

By Beacon Staff

WASHINGTON (AP) – The air in Libby, Mont., has become significantly cleaner in the last several years since 1,130 wood stoves were repaired or replaced with newer models.

The stove industry partnered with Lincoln County, the state of Montana and the Environmental Protection Agency in 2005 to change out old, inefficient wood stoves that filled the air with pollution and smoke. The two-year effort cost around $2.5 million.

The result: an almost 30 percent improvement in outdoor air quality, according to preliminary data from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

Indoor air quality has improved as well, according to University of Montana researchers. Tony Ward, a professor who measures levels of pollution in Libby, said results of the university’s studies are still being reviewed, but early data shows interior concentrations of the wood stove pollution has dropped around 72 percent.

“It looks like there is a dramatic improvement in indoor air quality,” Ward said. “I’ve been going to Libby for the last several years and the air is less smoky. It smells a lot cleaner.”

A University of Montana study conducted before the stoves were replaced found the smoke contributed more than 80 percent of polluting air particles in Libby — particles so small they are only about 1/30th the width of a human hair.

The old logging town has no natural gas service, but wood is abundant nearby and burning it is part of the culture.

The heavy pollution caused Libby to violate EPA air quality standards and created an even unhealthier environment for residents who have already been sickened by high asbestos levels. Asbestos from the town’s now-closed W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine is blamed by some health authorities for killing about 200 people and sickening one of every eight residents.

John Coefield, a meteorologist for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality who has studied Libby for more than 25 years, said he is hoping the improvements will bring Libby into compliance with all of EPA’s standards.

“Most of the houses you would see had this visible column of smoke coming from their chimney, and you just don’t see that anymore,” he said.

Jack Goldman, president of the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, the industry group that co-sponsored the change-out program, said today’s stoves produce almost no smoke and require less firewood.

According to the association, 260 wood stoves were replaced for free in low-income households and 791 stoves were replaced for low cost in other houses and businesses. Another 79 wood stoves were retrofitted or upgraded to meet EPA standards.