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By Benjamin Schmidt and Sarah Coefield
Missoula City-County Health Department Air Quality Specialist 

Seeley Lake Air Quality Update


Photo provided.

The special particulate monitor is located near the baseball fields nearly 400 feet from the air monitoring station in the bottom right of the field.

SEELEY LAKE - The 2016-2017 winter has been a cold snowy affair for western Montana. Because of the colder-than-usual temperatures, people are burning more wood to heat their homes and the temperature inversions are more persistent than in recent years.

These factors have contributed to a large number of days over the particulate standard. So far this winter, the Seeley Lake air monitoring station has measured 32 days over the national ambient air quality standard for particulate matter in the air. This is considerably higher than what we've seen in the years since the 2012 woodstove changeout and indicates there is more work to do to meet air quality standards.

To pin down the scope of the wood stove smoke problem, last October the Missoula City-County Health Department, in conjunction with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, placed a special particulate monitor in the middle of the elementary school grounds. The monitor will operate through this February.

We know from the 2010-2011 study that, generally speaking, the outskirts of Seeley Lake could easily meet the particulate standard. However, dense neighborhoods with large numbers of wood stoves exceed the daily particulate standard multiple times each winter. The question, then, is how large of an area is being impacted by these densely packed stoves.

Preliminary results from the special monitor indicate that the center of the elementary school property has lower smoke levels than the permanent monitor, except when inversions are in place. When inversions with poor dispersion set in, the permanent monitor and the special monitor have similar high particulate readings.

This suggests that under good dispersion conditions, air quality impacts are confined to a relatively small area. However, inversions are common during the winter months and multiple days over the standard have been recorded at the special monitor. A more complete analysis of the data will be done this summer.

Air Program staff from the Missoula City-County Health Department plan to meet with the Seeley Lake Community Council at their Feb. 13 meeting to share and collect ideas on next steps to address the smoke levels.

The 2012 woodstove changeout was a good start but this winter has illustrated that there are untapped opportunities to improve air quality in Seeley Lake. The Health Department has brainstormed several ideas – not all are practical but they provide a starting point for the discussion.

The simplest solution may be to focus on the fuel used in local woodstoves. Some harvested wood may be stored out in the elements or not have had time to thoroughly season. As we've discussed in previous articles, wet wood produces more smoke and burns less efficiently than dry wood. Potential solutions may include distributing manufactured fuel; setting up a community wood bank for drying and seasoning wood; installing a compressed log manufacturer in Seeley Lake; or delivering kiln dried wood or kiln dried starter kits to homes. Each of these ideas would take participation and coordination by the community.

Also, while they would improve the fuels part of the smoke equation, in order to achieve the dramatic smoke reduction necessary to meet air quality standards, proper stove operation would still be necessary on the part of wood burners in the community.

A more targeted approach could include replacing wood stoves in the approximately eight blocks south of the elementary school with new advanced wood or pellet stoves. Some newer wood stoves are automated and can adjust air flow based on temperature so that the fuel lasts longer and produce less smoke emissions. These advanced stoves simplify the operation part of the equation but they still require dry wood in order to meet emission reduction targets.

Pellet stoves would definitely solve the air pollution concerns, but they have so far proved unpopular in the area.

There are some significant limitations to grand scale projects that would clean up the air. A natural gas pipeline extension to Seeley Lake is cost prohibitive and existing homes do not have gas furnaces. We understand this is not a likely solution.

Photo provided.

The special particulate monitor is located on top of the old public restrooms next to the baseball fields.

A community central heating boiler, however, could be achievable, but would require a large grant to become a reality.

Other possible actions are a smoky burner hotline, fines for excessive smoke emissions, more educational efforts or new rules for fuel used in wood stoves.

The good news is the Health Department has some money available to use for wood smoke reduction efforts in Seeley Lake. However, the amount available is only enough to initiate a new smoke reduction strategy.

Ultimately, cleaning Seeley Lake's air is a community effort and requires the buy-in of local residents. The Health Department alone cannot clean the air. We look forward to continuing our partnership with Seeley Lake and working together to find a solution that works for as many people as possible while also providing cleaner air for everyone.


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