Juneau cleared from EPA air quality watch list

City's fine particulate levels just below EPA threshold

Posted: Friday, October 09, 2009

For the first time since the Environmental Protection Agency toughened standards for airborne fine particulate matter in 2006, Juneau is off of the agency's air quality watch list - but just barely.

The EPA's latest list of 31 areas in the country that did not meet the standard went out Thursday. Officials attribute the improvement to the city's wood-burning ordinance, tougher enforcement and a public education campaign.

However, meeting the standard this year doesn't mean the city can rest easy.

"We were very, very, very close to being designated as nonattainment," said Heather Marlow, Juneau's lands and resources manager. "Nonattainment" is EPA jargon for failing to meet its air quality standards for particulate matter.

Thousands of studies have linked exposure to the tiny airborne particles with serious human health problems, especially with people with heart and lung conditions, according to the EPA. And places that repeatedly fail are subject to reduced federal funding and extra red tape on federally funded projects.

In Juneau, the main culprit is wood smoke from older wood stoves that don't burn as efficiently as newer stoves and pellet-fueled stoves.

"We've done well, but we can't relax our vigilance," said Alice Edwards, acting director of the division of Air Quality at the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "Juneau's been hovering right around that level for a number of years now."

The determination is based on air quality data averaged over a three-year period. Marlow said stepping up enforcement last winter of the Mendenhall Valley's periodic burn bans led to 150 warnings and two $100 fines for repeat offenders, though 2009 data won't be taken into account until next year.

"Juneau's air quality is improving, and Juneau's efforts to reduce air pollution have been exemplary," Commissioner Larry Hartig of the state Department of Environmental Conservation said in a press release.

• Contact Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258 or e-mail jeremy.hsieh@juneauempire.com.

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