The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

DEC study clears the air, RBCA trials continue


Heidi Zemach | For The LOG

Ike Dotomain, of Seward, field operator for the DEC ambient air monitor study, changes filters on the monitor at the city’s beach site near Ballaine Boulevard.

Seward residents know that on windy days there are times and places where you have to shield your eyes, turn your body or close your mouth. High winds whip up our gray glacial silt, road dust, dredge piles, fugitive coal dust, and even yellow pollen, and swirl it around. When people blow or sweep off the parking lots, sidewalks and streets after the snow melts, you can clearly see the clouds rising from those areas. During the winter, the snow, boats and used oil collection sites around the small boat harbor downwind from the coal stockpile often collect a veil of coal dust. Local air emissions from wood or coal burning stoves, to diesel and bunker oil burned in furnaces and boilers rise up into the air. All of these generate particles that when inhaled or ingested can be harmful.

But the final report of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s 15-month PM10 ambient air monitoring study in Seward, published Jan 24, does not find cause for alarm.

The report, which came about following public complaints over fugitive coal dust, finds that none of the samples taken in Seward between January 2011 and May 2012 exceeded national ambient air quality standards for PM10s, or even came close to the current federal threshold level that would have triggered their concern. Most of the 78 samples fall well below current federal air quality health standards, said Bob Morgan an Environmental Program Specialist III for ADEC’s Division of Air Quality. The heaviest air sample, collected on April 27, 2012 from the monitoring site near the beach, represented only 36 percent of the PM10 National Ambient Air Quality Standard, and would still be categorized by DEC as “good air quality,” he said.

“The National Ambient Air Quality Standards are put in place to protect public health, and because the concentrations were far below the standard, DEC has no evidence to suggest that there is a threat to public health,” said DEC Air Quality Program Manager Barbara Trost. Ambient air is defined as outside air that the general public has access to.

Ike Dotomain, of Quetekcak Native Tribe, working as principal field tester for DEC’s ambient air sampling project, climbed atop three city-owned buildings, often under extremely challenging weather conditions. Every six days he placed a pre-weighed air filter inside each of the three vacuum-driven air monitors, leaving them in place for a 24-hour period before removing them and later mailing them back to DEC’s laboratory. He collected the samples at three locations considered representative of Seward’s ambient, or overall air quality: the roof of the Seward Community Library downtown, a beachfront building near Ballaine Boulevard, .8 miles downwind of the Small Boat Harbor and coal transfer facility, and Seward Mountain Haven long-term care center, which is in a residential neighborhood above Seward’s schools. Some of the other reasons those locations were selected by city officials and DEC were that they provided relatively safe access for the operator, they were secure, and had electrical power available.

Once back at DEC’s lab, the filters were examined and weighed again to determine the amount of particulate matter collected with an aerodynamic diameter of less than, or equal to 10 micrometers (PM10) concentration in the ambient air. If the PM10 Concentration had been greater than 155 micrograms per cubic meter, federal health standards would have been exceeded, said Trost. At that point, DEC might have analyzed their contents to see what kind of materials they contained.

The findings issued in the preliminary report of the DEC study released last year were well received by city council members. And the Seward Journal, owned by council member Vanta Shafer, published an article titled “Coal dust no problem in Seward, despite local worries” although air samples had not been analyzed. The final report was received with similar acclaim two weeks ago and spurred Council Member Marianna Keil to urge city officials to publish it to its website for all to see.

But not all area residents were convinced by the DEC study’s conclusions. A group of volunteers, concerned about the ambient air study’s inherent limitations, began a more targeted citizen’s air monitoring program of their own last April, hoping to address some of the questions that remain.

“We appreciate the efforts of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) to assess Seward’s ambient air quality,” said Pamela Miller, executive director Alaska Community Action on Toxics, the group providing project management and technical support to Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance’s citizen’s air monitoring program. Global Community Monitor, a grassroots citizen’s pollution monitoring organization from Northern California provided volunteer training and oversight.

“We believe that our citizen monitoring program will compliment what ADEC has done because it will address and respond to Seward residents’ concerns about potentially unhealthy air during high winds and the air quality downwind from source areas that people might be exposed to,” said Miller. “We are also investigating the chemical composition of the dust and not just measuring overall levels — we think it is important for people to have this information as well. What DEC has done is a good start, however it doesn’t answer all of the relevant public health questions and concerns.”

“Having only ever received dust complaints on windy days we only deploy our air monitors on windy days as our goal is to collect airborne particulates and identify what is in it and where it came from,” added Russ Maddox, RBCA advocacy director.

The program was set up using standard EPA operating procedures and protocol for testing of industrial “hot spots,” said Denny Larson, GCM’s executive director. They are hoping that the study will begin to answer questions like: How much fugitive coal dust is blowing off the coal pile, or coming from coal export facility operations and getting into the air people breathe? What areas are most impacted, and what substances does the air contain? Are the levels and types of dust people are often exposed to unhealthy?

Local volunteers have placed two small vacuum-air monitors similar to the ones DEC used, at various private locations near the harbor and the coal facility, and stretching out as far as Lowell Point to the south, and Forest Acres and Clear View to the west and north. Unlike the random air testing every sixth day of the DEC ambient air tests, they specifically monitor on windy days concentrating on times when coal trains are being unloaded or when ships are being loaded.

Each of the monitor’s filters, regardless of weight, is mailed to an independent testing laboratory to identify its contents using state-of-the-art X-ray technology that can detect and read results even down to PM 2.5, a level several times lower than what DEC had been planning to sample. At this low level, the dust-size particulate matter nevertheless can contain materials that are considered toxic to human health as they are small enough to cross the blood-brain membrane, just as tobacco smoke gets into the bloodstream, said Larson.

Former Seward city officials not only helped DEC to determine the site locations for its ambient air monitors, but also helped formulate the study’s parameters.

“We had offered to the City of Seward to analyze any high weight filters we received, to see if we could identify a source responsible for potential exceedances. In the discussion with the city, a concentration of greater than 100 micrograms per cubic meter was considered a threshold to perform the analysis,” said Trost.

“The DEC’s Seward PM10 monitoring program was not designed to assess wind-blown dust from one particular industrial source at the source’s property boundary, but rather to evaluate the overall ‘ambient’ air quality for the City of Seward,” said Trost.


Reader Comments

blofish writes:

doesn't it usually rain and snow in Seward? Russ-give it up. Let the results stand. Did you not raise these concerns BEFORE the results were in?

RussMaddox writes:

Facts do stand on their own but without context are often misconstrued as clearly evidenced by your comment and other publications misinformed pronouncements. The DEC conducted a study in average air quality which consisted of less than 30 random days collecting samples over 15 months many of which rained and snowed and averaging them. The Global Community Monitor Study is targeting dust to identify its content and sources and not wasting time or filters on rainy or snowy days as the DEC did.

Jim writes:

It is unfortunate the author's agenda is clearly apparent. A very SCN blog-like article..... It is unfortunate the facts cannot stand on their own.


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