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City 'on the cusp' of violating air standards

MARYSVILLE A wood stove buyback program reached up to 80 households, but the city is still on the verge of violating federal clean air standards for particulate matter, according to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

"We're really talking about public health, that's what it comes down to," the agency's Kathy Himes told City Council at its May 19 meeting.

Risks linked to the smallest of particles include respiratory disease, decreases in lung function and asthma. Air agency officials claim particulates even can lead to heart attacks and premature death.

During colder months, Himes said the agency believes wood-burning stoves are responsible for more than 50 percent of the particulates in the air locally. With that in mind, funded by a state grant, the air agency engineered the buyback program hoping to replace older, poorly burning stoves with newer, more efficient models, particularly promoting natural gas, propane or pellet stoves.

Even as they conducted the buyback program, the agency set up extra air monitoring stations around Marysville and south of the city. Himes said the worst numbers came from the northern stations, which prompted some city officials to question whether the source of the problem lies within the city or elsewhere. City Councilman Jeff Vaughan in particular said he was bothered by media coverage that painted Marysville as having air quality problems.

"It makes me bristle a little bit," Vaughan said, claiming he has lived in cities with air quality problems and further stating Marysville just isn't one of them.

"We do have transport issues," Himes said, admitting there is a possibility pollutants are coming into Marysville from outside the city. But she also said monitored wind conditions were mild at the times particulate levels were at their worst.

The discussion never really became heated, but Council members and Himes went back and forth a few times about what is inside and outside the city limits. For example, the agency set up one of its extra monitoring stations at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, but city officials noted the high school does not sit within city boundaries. Still, Himes argued much of the residential areas the agency believes are the source of the problem at least sit within the city's official Urban Growth Area.

If particulates are coming from the north, Council members wondered out loud if the problem might be coming from chimneys in Arlington or unincorporated areas outside Marysville. Himes did state the agency does not have monitoring stations in Arlington, but those may come in the future.

According to City Councilwoman Carmen Rasmussen, the debate over the source of the particulates is not simply a public relations issue for the city. She said if problem areas exist outside Marysville, the clean air agency needs to target those spots in order for reductions in particulate matter to actually take place.

For the most part, the clean air agency looks for the smallest particulate pieces, those that measure 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter. For comparison's sake, according to information provided by the agency in the past, the average human hair has a diameter of 70 micrometers. PM 2.5 particles clearly are a small fraction of that size. For just that reason, the agency considers those tiny particles the most dangerous of the six air pollutants they measure.

Again, according to agency information, PM 2.5 particles are more than small enough to freely enter your lungs, damage your lungs and possibly pass into your bloodstream. An asthma and environmental health specialist with the American Lung Association, Ailene Gagney said PM 2.5 particles pose a special threat to children and anyone with respiratory problems.

Himes said the federal standard for PM 2.5 particles is 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Those northern monitoring stations picked up readings as high as 45, Himes told City Council.

Initially, the clean air agency targeted Marysville for the buyback program and further study because of past high readings. Particulates are factored into an overall air quality index. Federal guidelines say an air quality index of 100 creates unsafe conditions for persons susceptible to respiratory and related health problems.

On Dec. 9, 2007, the air index for Marysville went just into the danger zone at 115. During this past December, the air agency contends Marysville had the highest particulate ratings of any city under study. Those cities included highly urbanized areas such as Seattle and Tacoma.

According to measurements posted on the agency's Web site, for January of this year, the average air index in Marysville was just barely below the federal standard. Only two spots rated higher: Lynnwood and Tacoma. According to air agency Communications Manager Alice Collingwood, the numbers posted on the Web do not include the extra monitoring stations. They reflect only numbers taken from the main local monitoring device set up at Totem Middle School. Speaking before Council, Himes said because the federal standard has not been reached locally on a regular basis, the city will escape sanctions from the federal government at least for now. Voluntary efforts at reducing particulates can continue as opposed to the mandatory steps that eventually could be imposed on Tacoma.

According to Collingwood, Tacoma already has been declared as non-compliant with federal standards. To earn that dubious distinction, a city's readings must be higher than federal standards for three years running.

What happens to city's declared "non-complaint?" Even though Tacoma just earned that rating, Collingwood said it's fairly rare for problems to reach that level. Collingwood said in areas that do earn the non-compliance rating, the air agency must come up with an extensive plan proving particulate emissions can be reduced.

"Our preference is to never go there," Collingwood added.

Practically speaking, she said non-attainment status could mean a lot of things, perhaps most noticeably creating difficulties with granting permits for certain types of new businesses.

"It's not necessarily good for business or for public perception," Collingwood said.

For the future locally, Himes said the clean air group would evaluate the effectiveness of the buyback program. While the initial program, which Himes repeatedly referred to as a pilot project, has ended, a similar effort is likely to surface next winter if the agency once again can obtain funding.

While final numbers are not in, Himes predicted the initial buyback removed enough older stoves from the area to remove some 4,000 pounds of particulates out of the local air. Collingwood later added the Marysville program already has proven far more successful than programs run elsewhere.

Himes told Council future buyback efforts might put even more emphasis on promoting gas and pellet stoves. She said even newer wood-burning stoves can cause problems if not used properly. The amount of financial incentives available also might be increased to entice greater participation.

"It's only going to get tougher from here," Himes said, adding the "early adapters" already have bought into the program.

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