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The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has been monitoring the air quality in Salmon for the past 20 years and according to a report to the Lemhi County Commissioners Monday, June 22, the particulate numbers are edging upward every year.

National air quality standards are set by the Environmental Protection Agency through the Clean Air Act which limits the amount of measurable particulates acceptable in the air. The annual standard is 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Salmon has pushed over that limit many times in the past few years.

Rensay Owen, Regional Manager for Air Quality, Erick Neher DEQ Regional Administrator and Ryan Rossi who is in charge of the air monitors and collected data met with the commissioners to discuss the ramifications of drawing EPA attention to Salmon’s air quality. Matt Wiggs, Energy Specialist with the Office of Energy Resources, attended the meeting by telephone.

Gina Knudson of the Salmon Valley Stewardship had attended an air quality seminar a few months ago and was surprised to learn that not all of the poor quality air in Salmon was related to forest fires. She requested more information as to what the community is contributing to the pollution and what the community might be able to do about it. Monday’s meeting was in response to her request.

Owen explained the DEQ wants to see Salmon avoid EPA regulations and for that reason has replaced 58 local wood stoves in the last three years through its wood stove replacement rebate program. The agency offers $1000 to anyone who will replace an old stove with a new EPA certified efficient stove. The offer has been limited to the city limits in past years but is being extended outward to the Baker and Carmen areas. He said there will be 38 stoves available for the program this year and all people have to do is contact City Hall to get on the list. Residents getting the $1000 rebate are required to take the old stoves to the landfill where they will be dismantled. They also are responsible for any costs over and above the $1000 such as new stove installation and old stove removal.

Other than forest fires some of the worst air quality months are during Wintertime inversions when wood stoves are keeping homes warm. Even though stoves are a pollution factor on those days it was emphasized at the meeting that the DEQ has no intention of ever restricting their use.

In answer to the predictable questions about wildfires causing unbreathable conditions Rosssi said wildfire smoke is excluded from regulatory decisions and he said the charts presented to the commissioners did not have the wildfire data excluded.

Commissioner Ken Miner asked about Forest Service prescribed burns such as the one this Spring in the Ditch Creek Drainage which caused reported respiratory distress to some residents. Rossi said prescribed burns are not excluded because they are a man caused event. The DEQ feels that if a local plan is formulated to limit air pollution, it might help when working with the Forest Service. He added the Forest Service needs to be a partner in whatever local air quality efforts are instigated.

Bringing an awareness of potential problems and creating interest in formulating a plan to reduce local air pollution was the purpose of the department’s visit to Salmon.

Owen said the DEQ would like to have a point of contact with the commissioners as in an appointed representative to attend meetings. He said there is an EPA program called PM Advance. “It allows you to take preemptive steps such as wood stove replacement; such as county ordinances to maybe control some emissions in the county to help reduce the particulate burden on specific days.” He said while there are Idaho rules prohibiting a lot of the open burning which occurs in this county and there are rules against burning fence posts with barbed wire wrapped around them, however, the department was not here to enforce those rules. Owen said, “If you want to burn tree limbs, your fence line, your ditch bank…that’s fine but there’s a whole list of things that are prohibited….tires, dead animals, garbage, burn barrels…things like that.” His statement was amended to being ‘legal’ unless a burn ban is in effect due to poor air conditions.

The DEQ issues local Air Quality Alerts which are broadcast on the radio station and even though the public’s observance is voluntary the department would like to see some preemptive things in an effort to get control of the air quality. Owen said, “We’re right on the edge of the standard. If we can take a few little steps now and keep it under control it’s going to keep the big cloud away, and the big cloud is EPA designating the Salmon area as a non-attainment area because you ‘violate’ the standard.”

Being designated a non-attainment area for “PM 2.5”, is a national label that says this area has polluted air which is at the level of being unhealthy. At that point the DEQ would be required to develop an implementation plan with enforceable steps and if the DEQ doesn’t do it the EPA will. Other side effects of such a listing include commercial impacts related to companies not wanting to invest in the community.

Commissioner Chairman Rick Snyder asked if creating a Clean Air Citizen’s Advisory Board would help avoid a listing. He was told it would because that shows the community is proactive and the key to the program is that solutions are local, not EPA or state mandated.

Knudson said she believes a key element is education and that people should be motivated more from a health standpoint than an economic one. She said according to hospital personnel the numbers quoted by DEQ can and do cause serious health problems. She was told the DEQ will have some funding to help with the educational aspects.

Commissioner John Jakovac was amazed that this community of less than 8,000 people can have such high particulate readings. The DEQ feels those readings are mostly from wood stoves and inversions. Jakovac said there are a lot of variables such as how long the particulates linger in the upper atmosphere and he said with the amount of dead timber that is going to burn one way or the other what causes air pollution really becomes a complicated issue. He said he does not oppose organizing a working group but at the same time does not want the county to have to be an enforcer of ordinances.

The DEQ doesn’t want the role of enforcer either and wants a partnership with the city and county or anyone interested in exploring some alternatives to get some control over the air quality. Commissioner Miner thanked the department for the wood stove program.

Wiggs commented by phone that non-attainment is a serious issue especially economically. He said he knows of a potential timber mill in northern Idaho being relocated due to the owners not wanting to deal with an EPA designation. He also said that no one will be interested in investing in Biomass operations if permitting and non-attainment becomes an issue. Wiggs said he highly recommends voluntary steps be taken by the county and city to avoid an EPA non-attainment designation. He indicated he was glad to hear DEQ will have funds for educational program development and hopes local citizens will help promote the wood stove rebate program.

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