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San Juan Basin Public Health receives EPA grant for air quality monitoring

Department says surveillance of pollutants has been an unmet need in the region
Particulate matter has been a major source of air quality pollution in San Juan Basin, particularly after the 416 Fire. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The Environmental Protection District announced this week it has selected seven Colorado air quality monitoring projects to receive a cumulative $2.9 million in funding – including a project proposed by San Juan Basin Public Health, which serves La Plata and Archuleta counties.

The agency will receive $312,500 over three years to launch a new air quality monitoring program in the region that will specifically target particulate matter and ozone.

“It’s a generational opportunity for us to provide information out to the public,” said Brian Devine, environmental health director for SJBPH. “We have seen, especially with the improvements in some of the sensor technology, the power that there is in real-time data for people to make decisions to protect their own health as well as for us to understand the risks in our community.”

The grant comes as part of President Joe Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, which articulated the goal of sending 40% of certain federal investments to populations that are marginalized, underserved and overburdened by pollution. The money for the projects comes from the American Rescue Plan Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, both of which provided money to the EPA to support air quality monitoring projects across the country.

“As soon as we saw this grant opportunity, which is really the first time that significant funding has been made available to local jurisdictions for outdoor air monitoring, we jumped at the chance,” Devine said.

Air quality monitoring has gaps that need filling to improve environmental health for environmental health in the region by the department. Save for a handful of privately operated sensor and three air quality monitoring stations operated by the Southern Ute Tribe, relatively little monitoring occurs in the region. This grant will change that.

Of the six pollutants regulated under the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards, the new sensors will monitor the two that are likely to pose the biggest risk to this region: ground-level ozone and particulate matter.

The Animas River corridor north of Durango was previously recognized by the state as a possible region with elevated ozone levels, and SJBPH hopes to investigate further. The pollutant is created by the reaction of other gases and is the main ingredient of “smog,” according to the EPA.

Particulate matter consists of fine airborne particles that, in this region, are most often the result of wildfires. The sensors will monitor for particles smaller than 10 microns – roughly one-seventh the width of a human hair – and smaller than 2.5 microns. Those particles can get lodged deep in one’s respiratory tract and cause a broad range of health problems.

The project will have two primary objectives. SJBPH plans to establish a network of air quality monitoring sensors throughout the region that will operate in “near-real time.” The plans are still in preliminary stages, but Devine said the department will have a website where data collected every 15 or 30 minutes will be available to the public.

“We have not finalized the location of any of these sensors yet, and we’re not going to do that until we’ve had a real community-level conversation about what people’s priorities are, what they’re concerned about, what the gaps are, how people are already using existing data,” Devine said. “We really want this to be a community-driven process and not just the health department and our partners collaborating to determine what we’re concerned about. We want to know what the community is concerned about and how we can use the sensors to provide valuable information to the community.”

The other objective will be investigatory. Community members will be able to bring air quality concerns to the department’s attention, and there will be mobile sensors available for checkout so that area residents can monitor air quality on their own property. The grant includes funding for SJBPH officials to review the data with anyone who borrows a sensor.

Part of the proposed budget will go toward funding a student worker at Fort Lewis College in the lab of Dr. Joanna Gordon Casey, an assistant professor of physics and engineering. Casey said the college’s role will be to help with the technical side of the monitoring, but that she is also excited to have students work with community members who check out loaner sensors to interpret the data.

“I’m really excited about the prospect of that,” Casey said. “When people have the opportunity to make measurements for themselves, it can be really empowering.”

Devine said the department hopes to have the program operational by mid-2023, although no definite schedule has been set.


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