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Big Sky, Clean Air

2010 November 30
We all have heard about tremendous improvements in air quality that have been attributed to the Clean Air Act (CAA).  Such as, establishing a market based emissions trading program which has significantly helped address the issue of Acid Rain, a problem mainly of concern to the areas of New England and the Eastern US.  But what about improvements in air quality found in the West?  I believe the West needs some air-quality-cred too.  Especially my hometown, Libby Montana.  It’s a small logging community of about 2,000 people nestled into the extreme northwest corner of Montana, about 15 miles from Idaho and 30 miles from Canada.  Let me tell you why.
The 1990 amendments of the CAA required EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for pollutants considered harmful to public health and the environment.  The EPA set standards for six principal pollutants (criteria pollutants) and then determined what areas (either counties or partial counties) of the US that did not meet these standards.  As you can tell by the map below, one small dot (other than the area around Los Angeles) in the whole western United States did not meet the particulate matter standard (PM-2.5).  Practically all the land west of the Mississippi was determined to have a low enough concentration of PM-2.5 except for Libby, MT.  Why?  Libby doesn’t have any “big cities”, power plants,  mining, or other industrial processes nearby; but it does have mountains and wood stoves.  Which in this case, added up to bad air pollution.  Libby sits in a valley surrounded by mountains and almost everybody uses a wood stove for their primary heat.  Older wood stoves create a lot of particulate matter, and those emissions just hung in the valley, especially during the winter months (9 months out of the year) when temperature inversion and light winds trapped the smoke.
PM-2.5 Nonattainment Areas (1997 Standard)
In order to meet the 1997 PM-2.5 standards, the State of Montana, with assistance from EPA, implemented a wood stove change-out program.  Where 1,130 old, uncertified woodstoves were replaced with EPA-certified stoves or pellet stoves.  Additional measures and regulations were also adopted to limit open burning and wood stove use on especially bad days.  After a few years of running these programs, I’m happy to report that the EPA has recently proposed to designate Libby as meeting the 1997 PM-2.5 standard.  (No more green dot!)
While I currently live in Washington, DC, I still manage to get back to my hometown to visit my folks at least once a year and have noticed a change in the air quality.  It’s better than when I was a kid.  And while having good air quality doesn’t necessarily improve my time opening Christmas presents in front of the wood stove, it certainly puts the cherry on top of the real reason that I make the ten hour trip back home — skiing Turner Mountain.  It’s awesome. There are never lift lines, always cheap tickets,  and the entire hill can be rented for practically the cost of an East Coast lift ticket.  Turner Mountain has 2110 vertical drop, plenty of powder, over 60% of the runs are black diamond, and a world famous t-bar burger.  And oh yeah, the view is amazing.   

Turner Monuntain, Montana

Turner Mountain, Montana


Travis Johnson is an engineer working in the Clean Air Markets Division of EPA. In addition to skiing, he enjoys spending his time huntin’, fishin’, wranglin’, steer wrestlin’, and all other things Montanian.



Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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