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Air quality report gives four counties failing grades

By Jacqueline Gedeon, KTVM Butte Reporter, jgedeon@ktvm.com
Published On: Apr 30 2014 06:06:39 PM MDT
Updated On: Apr 30 2014 06:16:25 PM MDT
BUTTE, Mont. -

The American Lung Association gave four Montana counties an F grade when it comes to air quality. The grades come as part of the organization's State of the Air report.

Silver Bow, Missoula, Ravalli and Lewis and Clark counties all received a failing grade.

Grades are based on data compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency that show the amount of ozone, soot or other particles in the air.

Officials say western wildfires, particularly in 2012, played a major role in the poor rating.

One southwest Montana Air Quality Expert said the report doesn't tell the whole story and the air around Butte is actually improving. Butte Air Quality Specialist Paul Riley showed NBC Montana Butte's main air quality monitoring station.

"Here are the four different ports," said Riley. "You actually can sample for four different objects, we only use the one which is particulate matter."

The device takes in fine particles in the air and measures it so it knows how much dirty air you're breathing in.

"The F is somewhat misleading," said Riley. "No one likes to get an F on anything."

Riley said his department, the state and the EPA interpret air quality differently than the American Lung Association. The American Lung Association factored the pollution from the 2012 wildfires in Idaho and Montana into their 3-year report.

"We do have wildfires and we get significant spikes when it rolls into the valley," said Riley.

Riley explained his reports don't include uncontrollable events like wildfires. He said 77 percent of Butte's air pollution comes from the wood people burn to keep warm in the winter.

"In the winter you can see the haze over the valley," said Butte resident Shirley Campbell.

"It's probably worse here because people still burn wood here for heat," said Butte resident Robert Nabor.

Residents we spoke with said they can smell the pollution from wood burning in the air.

But Riley said because of improved technology in wood burning stoves and regulations improving conditions, this recent winter has been one of the cleanest in years.

"People are becoming more knowledgeable about burning wood, about what they burn, the type of wood that they use," said Riley.

Riley said he is looking into creating a new program that would help low-income families replace old wood-burning stoves with newer, cleaner-burning stoves that meet clean air standards.