MARYSVILLE — On many days, breathing the air in Marysville is comparable to breathing the air on a street corner in downtown Seattle.
In the fall and winter, it’s worse.
Everyone is at higher risk for developing or aggravating bronchitis, asthma, emphysema and even lung cancer. Older adults, children and people with respiratory or heart disease are especially vulnerable.
The primary culprit: wood smoke.
That’s why the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency is paying up to $750 to Marysville residents who own pre-1995 wood stoves and fireplace inserts — stoves that fit into fireplaces — to replace them with newer stoves or other cleaner ways of heating their homes.
The offer is good only through February. The Clean Air Agency received a $250,000 state grant for the incentive program to cover Marysville as well as parts of Pierce County.
Tacoma already has been deemed out of compliance with federal clean air standards.
Marysville’s on the edge.
“The geography of Marysville is kind of an air trough,” said Paul Roberts, the city’s public works director and soon-to-be chairman of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s board of directors. Roberts also is an Everett city councilman.
The air in Marysville hasn’t deteriorated that much in recent years, said Dave Kircher, air resources manager for the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. The reason for the program is that the standards have become stricter.
A year ago, in December 2006, the federal government lowered the threshold for acceptable levels to 35 micrograms of particles per cubic meter, from 65, Kircher said.
Evidence that the tiny particles found in wood smoke cause or worsen diseases of the heart and lungs became so overwhelming that tightening the standards became a no-brainer, Kircher said.
The particles are so tiny that as many as 40 of them can fit across the diameter of a human hair.
The worst single day in Marysville in 2007 came earlier this month, when an average of 47.7 micrograms per cubic meter were in the air, Kircher said. The highest level found for the year on any one day in downtown Seattle was in the mid-20s. The Duwamish River area in Seattle, where industrial pollution mixes with auto pollution and some wood smoke, is Seattle’s worst area and is actually comparable with Marysville, Kircher said.
The agency has one regular air monitor at Marysville Junior High School, 1605 Seventh St. Three others were added around the city recently when officials began to notice the high levels of pollutants in town, he said.
The monitors, Kircher said, are “kind of like a vacuum cleaner,” sucking in the air so the particles are caught on a filter and later analyzed. The filter also is weighed. The agency uses several ways to determine the sources of pollution, including chemical analysis, time of day and time of year the particles are gathered, phone surveys regarding wood smoke use, and observation.
“You can smell wood smoke, a lot of times,” Kircher said.
Chase Nunes, 28, and his wife have been using a fireplace insert since they moved into their home a few years ago. Nunes guessed that the fireplace insert was installed in his home about 20 years ago. It doesn’t heat his home very well, and the company that made it is out of business, he said.
Nunes and his wife also are not happy with their electric baseboard heat.
“It’s extremely inefficient and extremely expensive,” he said.
They wanted to get a new gas furnace but gas is not available in their neighborhood. So they’re looking at getting a newer, better fireplace insert and also accepting $200 in help from the Clean Air Agency.
Beginning last year, the agency offered a similar program in Darrington, a town where many people rely on wood smoke for home heating. Since then, 50 wood stove users in Darrington have used the program to switch. While all the data is not in, the changes appear to be helping with Darrington air quality, Kircher said.
It’s made a noticeable difference on overcast winter days, when clouds hold down the smoke, Mayor Joyce Jones said.
“It’s getting cleaner,” she said.
The agency still has money left for switch-outs in Darrington and so the discounts are still available.
If a city violates the standards for three calendar years in a row, based on a complex formula, it must make an effort to reduce its pollutants, Kircher said.
In the worst case for Marysville, it could be denied federal grants for major transportation improvements or even face a ban on wood stove use, Kircher said.
Neither is likely as long as some type of remedy is pursued, he said. Other than educating the public, cities usually are powerless to make big changes without the help of larger government agencies such as the Clean Air Agency and the Puget Sound Regional Council, officials said.
The most likely result of exceeding air quality standards is the stigma that would go with having a pollution problem, Kircher said.
“There is the fear that economic growth would be slowed down,” he said.
Roberts said the City Council discussed the wood stove replacement incentives at a recent meeting. A notice about the program has been posted on the city Web site, and Roberts said he has discussed the issue with officials from the neighboring Tulalip Tribes, who were receptive, he said.
Regardless of what the government says, Roberts said there’s another, more important consideration.
“The overarching issue is air quality,” he said. “The issue really becomes one of a significant health risk.”
Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.