Tracking Biomass Air Pollution on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula

Tracking Biomass Air Pollution on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"107","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"324","style":"width: 380px; height: 275px; margin-left: 7px; margin-right: 7px; float: left;","title":"Port Townsend Paper Company. Photo: Elaine Bailey","width":"480"}}]]Government agencies and policymakers have long turned a deaf ear to concerns with human health threats from biomass incineration. A new experimental study underway on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula may ultimately compel elected officials to act to protect public health from biomass incineration, while serving as a model for communities around the nation.

The Olympic Region Clean Air Agency (ORCAA) budgeted over half a million dollars to conduct this new experimental study “focusing on the impacts of biomass fueled cogeneration facilities on air quality downwind,” with additional monitoring of the air quality near two proposed biomass incinerators, a 20-megawatt facility at Nippon Industries in Port Angeles and a 24-megawatt facility at Port Townsend Paper Company in Port Townsend.

The new study would more intensely measure how air quality will change once the biomass incinerators come online, assess any increase in Particulate Matter, including PM 2.5 and smaller, ultrafine particles, determine which neighborhoods would be most affected, and establish whether particle levels and size distributions change seasonally.

“Smaller particles penetrate deeper into lungs, heart, and even brain to cause more health damage,” explained the Proposal for Ultrafine Particle study in Jefferson and Clallam Counties.

The first ever Congressional briefing on the health impacts of biomass incineration, including threats from Particulate Matter, was held in September 2012, organized by Save America’s Forests and the Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign.

One component of the new study focuses on Ultrafine Particulate Matter levels before and after the construction of the biomass power facilities, which would be built adjacent to existing paper mills at Nippon Industries in Port Angeles and Port Townsend Paper Company. The incinerators would burn trees, tree tops, tree limbs and also likely construction and demolition debris.

Bob Sextro, former air quality engineer and Sequim resident, explained that permanent air monitoring stations have existed for years, one each in both Port Angeles and Port Townsend, to measure PM 2.5. There are now also two newer monitoring stations in Port Angeles and one in Sequim (about 15 miles east of the Nippon facility), along with a newer instrument at the same site as the permanent monitor.

These newer instruments are optical particle counters (OPC), which will operate between January 2013 and December 2013, and then will be relocated to Port Townsend in 2014. In both Port Angeles and Port Townsend, one of the OPCs will be collocated at the permanent air monitoring station, which uses a nephelometer to measure particulate matter. ORCAA will also use an aethalometer to measure the levels of black carbon to differentiate between pollution from wood combustion and diesel exhaust.

In the newest experimental study, ORCAA proposes to collaborate with atmospheric scientists at the University of Washington (UW) to “examine the concentration, sources and lifetimes of ultrafine particulate” in Port Angeles and Port Townsend. One new ultrafine monitor, called a scanning mobility particle sizer, will be placed near residential areas of Port Townsend and the Port Townsend Paper Company, while the second ultrafine monitor will be in Port Angeles in proximity to the Nippon Paper facility.

According to the study proposal, “continuous stack emission measurements” at the incinerators will be taken in addition to “ambient measurements to determine their potential influence on the ambient air quality.” Measurements of PM 2.5, “number concentration and size distribution of ultrafine particles (diameter < 100 nanometers)” along with carbon monoxide levels will also be taken at the Port Angeles and Port Townsend locations.

One potential complication is the fact that the Nippon biomass incinerator may come online in fall 2013, too soon to gather baseline winter measurements of ultrafines. If the incinerator’s startup is not delayed into 2014, “meteorology and plume dispersion modeling will allow data to be segregated” to times when emissions from Nippon could impact measurements.

According to the study proposal, the area to be monitored has some of the cleanest air in the country and there are “no other large industrial sources or major freeways to obscure ultrafine and fine particulate emissions” from the biomass incinerators. However wood-burning stoves “constitute a large fraction of the observed PM 2.5” during the winter.

Sextro believes the study could operate as a “starting point” for a national model of monitoring air pollution from biomass incineration, as well as guiding future local studies. “Assuming the study is solid,” Sextro said, it will provide some “powerful data.”

However, since the project only involves collecting data, Sextro said the next step would be a “health impacts analysis” to determine whether the levels of ultrafine particles measured may pose a threat to community members.

“A missing piece,” added Sextro, is “more gaseous emission data at the monitoring stations”, especially for “toxic VOCs [Volatile Organic Compounds] that have known health effects.”

The new biomass incinerators will be fitted with emission control technology that is intended to lower the amount of PM 2.5 currently emitted by the paper plants (while burning a greater volume of biomass). However, carcinogenic Volatile Organic Compounds and Nitrogen Oxides will “roughly increase by 35 and 18 tons per year,” for the Nippon facility in Port Angeles, according to the study proposal.

While PM 2.5 levels may decrease, the study proposal explained that “the number of ultrafine particles, which may be more hazardous to respiratory and cardio health, will increase.”

According to an independent study conducted in Colorado in 1997, when PM 2.5 levels decrease, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides “have less surface area on which to condense” and are more likely to “homogeneously nucleate ultrafine particles downwind of the emission site.” This means that as emission controls limit the amount of PM 2.5, smaller, deadlier ultrafine particles are more likely to be formed. 

A health consultation study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in response to air pollution concerns with the Port Townsend Paper Company in 2008, stated that “the association between air pollution and human illness has been well established. People who are most sensitive to air pollution are those with heart and lung disease (including asthma), stroke, diabetes, infants and children, and older adults, (those 65 and older), or people with a current respiratory infection.”

However, the report found that existing monitoring was not sufficient to trace health impacts from the paper mill, since the existing monitor “does not consistently capture emissions” from the facility. Therefore, the report “cannot conclude whether air emissions from PTP mill could harm people’s health because the information we need to make a firm conclusion is not available.”

Biomass opponents are hopeful that the current monitoring effort will give citizens a better understanding of the pollution levels of biomass incineration, which will allow for a greater understanding of current and potential health impacts, which may ultimately influence energy policy on a local, regional, and national scale.

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