Citizens to test the air in Seward
A new citizen science air quality monitoring project began this weekend in Seward with a presentation and training. The group of volunteers is hoping to begin to answer questions like: How much fugitive coal dust is blowing off the coal pile or from operations at the coal export facility and getting into the air we breathe? What areas does it most impact, what is its reach, and what substances does it contain? These are questions that remain unanswered by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s year-long study in Seward, which will be completed in a few months.
Last September, Ike Dotomain, working on behalf of the DEC’s ambient air sampling project, climbed down a ladder from the roof of the Seward Community Library, with a used air filter stored in a special case given to him by the DEC. It had been inside the vacuum-driven air monitor for 24 hours, and was now a slate-gray color, whereas it had been bright white when he had placed it there the previous day.
“That’s dust we’re breathing right here,” Dotomain said, comparing the gray filter to the white roll of paper towel he carried. But what kind of dust it actually contained would not be determined over the course of the year.
Dotomain would visit the other two fixed monitoring sites, one on the beach near Ballaine Boulevard .8 miles downwind of the Small Boat Harbor, and the other at Seward Mountain Haven long-term care center, located above Seward’s schools, before mailing the filters back to DEC’s laboratory. There, they would be examined and weighed to see if they had entrapped particulate matter (PM) greater than 10, or an aerodynamic diameter less than or equal to a nominal 10 meters concentration. If the weight of the filter was larger than 155 micrograms, then federal health standards would have been exceeded, said DEC Air Quality Program Manager Barbara Trost. Then, DEC might have decided to further analyzed their contents. Dotomain ran the filters for 24 hours once a week.
On Jan. 30, ADEC produced an interim monitoring report on its findings to date that showed that the amount of particulate matter collected in the monitors filters fell well below national ambient air quality standards. The highest PM10 concentration found in the Seward filters (from the beach site) was 44 micro-grams, which is less than one-third of the allowable federal ambient air standards. The average all of the readings, taken since the first ones Feb. 20, 2011, it averages out to only about 11 micro-grams per cubic meter, said Bob Morgan, a DEC Environmental Program Specialist, “So that’s pretty low.”
The preliminary test results were reassuring for some perhaps, but it did not put to rest lingering questions that have blown through the community such as whether the air contains harmful levels of coal dust in certain parts of town, and whether that could be a concern to the public health.
“The public is confused,” said Global Community Monitor’s Executive Director Denny Larson, a speaker at an RBCA/Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT)-sponsored public event in Seward Friday night. Larson was visiting from Northern California to help set up the monitoring project, and to conduct a citizens science monitor training for volunteers on Saturday. “They think the (DEC) study was about coal dust. It isn’t. You don’t protect the public health by coming to Seward, Alaska and testing PM10, and not test it for coal dust,” he added. “That’s misleading and a waste.”
Global Community Monitor is a grassroots citizen’s pollution monitoring group from Northern California which trains and supports communities across the U.S., and has worked community groups in “fenceline” communities in 27 countries in the use of environmental monitoring tools to help them pinpoint the impact of industrial pollution on their health and the environment. Since 2001 the group has become known for their “Bucket Brigades” in which volunteers have used specialized buckets equipped with monitors to collect samples to test for local sources of pollution. But the two new particle air monitors they will use in Seward are fairly new to GCM’s tool-kit. They are simply smaller, portable versions of the ones DEC used for ambient air monitoring here.
Concerned about the limitations of this DEC ambient air study, Seward’s Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance solicited training and oversight from GCM, project management and technical support from the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, based in Anchorage, and financial support from the Alaska Sierra Club and Alaska Conservation Foundation. Five local volunteers and two alternates will place two monitors at 8-10 selected locations near the harbor and the coal facility and stretching out as far as Lowell Point in one direction, and Forest Acres and Clear View in the other.
They are using standard EPA operating procedures and protocol.The difference is they will take a more focused approach to air monitoring by zeroing in on potential industrial hotspots, downwind of the coal pile and transfer operations, Larson explained. Unlike the random testing every sixth day of the DEC ambient air tests, the citizen volunteers will be monitoring on windy days when the coal facility is actively operating. Starting around the time the next coal ship is due in, volunteers will begin taking samples near the facility, and they plan to sample upwind of the facility at times as controls.
Each of the monitor’s filters will be automatically mailed to an independent testing laboratory to identify the contents using state-of-the-art X-ray technology that can detect and read results even down to PM 2.5, a degree several times lower than what DEC had been planning to sample, Larson said. At this low level, the particulate matter is the size of dust, and can contain materials that are nevertheless considered toxic to human health as they are small enough to cross the blood-brain membrane, just as tobacco smoke gets into the bloodstream.
Larson pointed out several past examples of similar citizen’s monitoring efforts that have made a difference, such as in Claymont, Del., home to the Evraz Claymont Steel mill, and also three busy freeways. The Delaware DEC had conducted ambient air PM10 tests, yet concluded that the dust particles they had monitored were probably coming from the nearby freeways, he said. But when the citizen’s Bucket Brigade monitored the air for three years near the site, and analyzed the air filter’s contents, they discovered that they contained toxic levels of heavy metals including iron, manganese and nickel, major additives in the steel-making process that were not present in vehicle emissions, Larson said. Working with Delaware’s Environmental Agency and the steel mill, GCM was able to bring about a negotiated agreement whereby the steel mill must retrofit the plant with pollution control upgrades within three years to reduce public exposure to their emissions.
In West Berkeley, Calif., samples were collected in 2007 by citizens monitoring the air at 23 sites near a scrap steel recycling plant. The filters were found to contain alarming concentrations of manganese and nickel that were likely emitted by the steel plant, although their DEC had pointed to the probability of it coming from highway traffic or small plane emissions.
Although the Seward citizens’ monitoring process will take at least a year, maybe longer, the results that emerge will be watched closely by regulators and concerned citizens elsewhere, particularly in areas in the West and Northwest where new coal mines, or additional and new coal rail traffic, and new coal-export facilities are proposed, said Heidi Zimmer, of ACAT. The coal export business is growing fast, and people want to know the risks, she said.
Meanwhile, the Alaska Railroad Corporation has budgeted to spend an estimated $720,000 in capital funds on improvements to the coal loading facility, geared to help minimize dust, improve loading operations and safety for both coal ship workers and transfer facility employees. ARRC plans to enclose Tower 13 and the apparatus just off Port Avenue; replace the ship loader hoist drive; upgrade a motor and replace pulleys on its belt conveyors; add some more sprinklers and a weather station for the coal pile; add another control camera on the ship loader chute, and more.