Citizen scientists monitor North Pole air

Smoke and fog hang in the air over Fairbanks on a -30 degree winter night in November 2011.

Smoke and fog hang in the air over Fairbanks on a -30 degree winter night in November 2011. (Creative Commons photo by Steve Betts)

Fairbanks and North Pole have suffered numerous Clean Air Act violations again this winter due to fine particulates from wood, coal and other burning. Smoke pollution persists despite long term government efforts to assess and remedy the problem, and a local group has taken air quality monitoring into their own hands.

It’s an off day at the office of North Pole veterinarian Jeanne Olson, with time to focus on the problem that’s forced her to install an air filtration system at her clinic and now air monitoring station in the yard.

“We went from thinking about the possibility that we could do this,” Olson said. “And a week later, it was up and going.”

That’s in part due to the nimbleness of the small group Citizens for Clean Air, Olson co-coordinates. She said they contacted Oregon based manufacturer of high-tech air monitoring machines Met One and were loaned a unit called a “beta attenuation monitor,” or BAM, and set up in a tent in her yard.

The beta attenuation monitor, or BAM, sits inside a heated tent. The unit draws in outside air through a stack that extends through the tent ceiling.

The beta attenuation monitor, or BAM, sits inside a heated tent. The unit draws in outside air through a stack that extends through the tent ceiling. (Photo by Dan Bross/KUAC)

“So this is the BAM,” Olson said. “This is the expensive $20,000 gadget. And this is a piece of insulation because there’s actually a heater in here that preheats the air at a known volume. In a little while, this pump’s gonna come on and it’ll be way noisy in here, but right now it’s just sitting there thinking and measuring and doing stuff in its little box.”

The BAM is the same EPA approved unit the North Star Borough officially gauges air quality within downtown Fairbanks and North Pole. The Citizen’s for Clean Air station also includes a more basic style monitor the borough deploys in local neighborhoods.  Olson says the combination enables on site assessment in what’s perceived to be a very smoky neighborhood, as well as a way to compare readings from the 2 types of monitors.

“Our neighborhood monitors have never really been thoroughly vetted and tested, especially in the cold temperatures and the high levels. So that was why it was really important to put a BAM and a neighborhood monitor together, simultaneously measuring the same basic air in the same area.”

Olson says Citizen’s for Clean Air tried to work with the borough to get the information, but became frustrated.

“The approval process was going to take way too long, and rather than wait a whole ‘nother season, we said, ‘Well let’s just see if we can figure out how to do it ourselves.’”

Olson maintains the citizen monitoring project is not about going rogue, and says they will share all their data, with an end goal of cleaning up local air.

“There’s just so many people that A: The air is as bad as it is in the North Pole, B: That there’s a health problem for it and C: That these monitors could even have an inkling of being accurate.”

North Pole routinely violates federal air quality standards during the winter months, and Olson says the BAM monitor on her property one day registered a fine particulate level in excess of 250 micrograms per cubic meter, far above the EPA threshold of 35. EPA officials, in town this week to discuss air quality issues with the borough, planned to meet with Citizens For Clean Air and view their monitoring station.

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