Darrington tries to clear the air

On certain winter days Darrington’s air is the most polluted in the state.

Smoke from wood-burning stoves gets trapped under a layer of cold air, sending the reading on an air quality monitor that sits on top of Darrington High School shooting up into dangerous territory.

It’s those spikes of dirty air that could get the town in trouble with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The federal government last week cut in half the amount of soot that can be released in one 24-hour period. The regulation affects everything that’s 1/30th the width of a human hair or larger.

The tiny smoke particles can be inhaled, cutting the inside of a person’s lungs, according to EPA reports. Excessive exposure can aggravate breathing problems or even lead to premature death.

Darrington in 2005 failed to meet the old standard. Marysville and south Tacoma are the only other cities in the Puget Sound region that are in danger of missing the new mark, said Kathy Himes, air resource specialist at the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

Wood stoves are still used in Marysville, and the city is also in a bit of a bowl that, like the mountains that surround Darrington, traps smoke at ground level.

Lynnwood, the location of Snohomish County’s only other air quality monitor, isn’t in danger of violating the new standard, she said.

Grappling with smoke

Darrington’s sky is too smoky too often, but the EPA is encouraged by what’s happening there, said Donna Deneen, an EPA environmental engineer.

“We understand that steps are already being taken to reduce particulate levels there,” she said. “That’s exactly what we would like to see.”

Since January, Darrington has been encouraging its residents to replace their old wood stoves with new propane, wood pellet or more efficient wood stoves, said Dan Rankin, town councilman.

So far 29 old stoves have been replaced.

“Our goal is to hit or exceed 50 change outs,” Rankin said.

Darrington has partnered with the regional clean air agency to pay for buying and installing the new heaters.

Those who choose propane heaters, the cleanest, get up to $2,500; wood pellet stoves, up to $1,500; and certified wood stoves, $500, Himes said.

Getting the longtime logging community to buy propane or wood pellets when they can go chop wood in their forest can be challenging.

“Wood burning is a primary source of heat in our area,” Rankin said. “This is a logging community. It just brings home your connection to your house.”

The air has been monitored in Darrington for only one year. Three years of data are needed before a city can be in violation, so Darrington won’t officially run up against the federal regulation unless emissions stay above 35 micrograms of soot per cubic meter of air in 2006 and 2007, Himes said.

If that happens, the EPA will ask the state of Washington to come up with a plan to get Darrington “in attainment,” Deneen said. If that plan fails, then the EPA would come up with more aggressive remedies.

Reporter Lukas Velush: 425-339-3449 or lvelush@heraldnet.com.

All Darrington homes that use wood stoves for heat qualify for help buying new, cleaner heaters.

The town has partnered with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to offer vouchers to help buy new propane, wood pellet or certified wood stoves.

Those who buy propane heaters get up to $2,500; wood pellet stoves, up to $1,500; and certified wood stoves, $500.

Pick up an application at Town Hall, 1005 Cascade St. Get more information by calling 360-436-1131.

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