Air Study Reveals Heavily Polluted North Fork Road

By Beacon Staff

A recent University of Montana study of dust on North Fork Road supported what residents there have been asserting for years: Airborne particulate matter often exceeds nationally regulated amounts and could lead to health problems.

The study helps further quantify the risks and severity of the county’s dust problem, local officials and board members say, but doesn’t necessarily lead to workable solutions.

“I don’t see reports like this being able to do anything but draw criticism from both sides – one side saying the study is flawed and poking holes in it and the other saying it’s a horrible situation and we must do something,” Charles Lapp, chairman of the county’s road advisory committee, said. “We know there’s a problem, what this doesn’t tell us and what we haven’t found is a solution.”

Last spring members of the North Fork Road Coalition for Health and Safety doled out more than $8,000 to hire UM to conduct an air quality study on their road. The group’s main concerns, chairman Bob Grimaldi said, were respiratory health, driving visibility and air and water quality.

From the middle of July until the end of August last year, three monitoring devices, positioned at different points along the North Fork Road, took 24-hour samples of particulate matter every three days. The machines recorded 60-second averages so one large vehicle couldn’t skew the numbers.

During the study, averages for the two different sizes of particulate matter tested met the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards only twice each.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at a truck go by and see that you get a huge plume of dust, but what surprised me was how high some of the concentrations of dust are here,” professor Tony Ward, with UM’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences, said during a presentation to county commissioners last week.

The EPA has indoor air quality standards for two sizes of particulate matter, PM10 and PM2.5. The larger size, PM10, is about one-sixth the diameter of a human hair and is usually caused by crushing or grinding. PM2.5 is about 1/25th the diameter of human hair and is generally the result of a combustion process. Both are small enough to bypass the body’s defenses and settle in the lungs.

The EPA standard for PM10 is 150 micrograms per day; it’s 35 micrograms per day for PM2.5. On the North Fork Road, though, the daily average at the testing points for PM10 was 211 and 185, while the average for PM2.5 was 73. The study also tested particulate matter in traveling vehicles and found several instances of elevated levels.

“It’s a substantial difference,” Ward said. “On an average day we found that the levels were lowest in the early morning hours and tended to peak around 8 p.m.”

Andrij Holian, the director of the University of Montana’s Center for Environmental Health and Sciences, used the road dust measurements to run a health study of his own.

After exposing mice to varying levels of road dust for four weeks, Holian found that 400 microgram and 1 milligram doses of the dust led to damaged lungs and the beginning stages of emphysema. “The pathological lesions caused by road dust are similar to those caused by cigarette smoke,” he said.

It would take about two years of traveling the North Fork Road, Holian said, to equal the amounts of road dust introduced to the mice.

For many members of the North Fork Road Coalition the study is scientific evidence that the county needs to act to reduce health risks. “It got to the point where we didn’t feel the county was going to do anything until we put some pressure on them,” Grimaldi said. “After this, I’d like to see them become proactively involved – getting something done, rather than sitting back and saying, ‘Woe is us, we have no money,’ and only doing half measures to mitigate the problem.”

County officials, though, say mitigating dust on the county’s approximately 700 miles of unpaved roads isn’t financially feasible. The North Fork study tells them what they already suspected; it doesn’t help them find a solution.

“I applaud the residents of the North Fork for using their own funds, and I hope that we can put this information to good use,” Commissioner Dale Lauman said. “Does it solve the problem for us? No, it’ll take much more work to do that.”

The county is moving forward with several roads projects, Lauman said. A dust deputy has been assigned to patrol the county’s unpaved roads and issue tickets to speeding motorists. A county-funded engineering study will hopefully help prioritize where paving and dust mitigation is most needed. The county is also testing various dust control products this summer.

Then there is the Roads Advisory Committee, a county-appointed citizens group that has met with the county and public since last fall trying to develop road dust solutions. The committee, Lapp said, is currently putting together its initial recommendations for the commission.

Debate amongst the committee and the public has run the gamut, Lapp said, with some parties pushing for what little money the roads department has to go toward paving, while others say it should be spent on abatement and maintenance. Suggested funding sources have included a gas tax, impact fees and residential districts.

One promising idea, Lapp said, was a small fee – about $10 – tacked onto vehicle registrations that would be earmarked for the roads department. Implementing the fee would require voter approval.

The next step for the North Fork residents is uncertain. Some in the group feel litigation is the only way to be heard by the county, Grimaldi said, while he would like to research the safety of the road. He harbors no illusions that there will be a quick fix or response from the county.

“The new commissioner, heir apparent (Jim Dupont) has already pooh-poohed the problem, saying if you don’t like it move. That kind of attitude really puts some impediments in the way.”