When air quality specialist Sarah Coefield with the Missoula City-County Health Department was younger, she remembers holding her breath while passing through the Garden City. Throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, Missoula had a reputation for bad air tied to rampant woodstove use, unpaved roads and unregulated sanding. Coefield still gets calls from people thinking of moving to Missoula but concerned about the state of the air.
“It was a deserved reputation back 20 years ago,” Coefield says. “But that’s not the case anymore. We have better air than a lot of communities in Montana but we still have this label, and that’s all people see.”
The “label” Coefield refers to is the Environmental Protection Agency’s designation of Missoula as a non-attainment area for PM-10, or particulate 10 microns in diameter and smaller, and it’s a label she’s spent much of the past two years working to remove. Last week Coefield presented to the Missoula City-County Air Pollution Control Board a draft request to redesignate Missoula to attainment for PM-10. The board approved, with chairman Garon Smith stating that the move would give Missoula, which hasn’t exceeded PM-10 standards since 1989, “a much cleaner slate.”
Now the proposal goes to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and eventually the EPA, which will issue the final word that 25 years of work to improve Missoula’s air quality—road de-icer, paving requirements, woodstove regulations—have paid off.
“It’s an acknowledgment that what we’ve done is working and we have good air, we’ve cleaned it up, we’re in good shape,” Coefield says.
The redesignation won’t result in any regulatory changes in Missoula, and the pollution control board doesn’t anticipate any fiscal impacts. But shedding its non-attainment status would give the city a “perception gain,” Coefield says. Future residents aren’t the only ones concerned with air quality; many businesses see the non-attainment label as a major turnoff when exploring new locations.
“A lot of companies don’t really want to go into a non-attainment area,” Coefield says, “because if they’re a green company and they’re all about being really environmentally responsible, they don’t want to go into an area with a reputation for having bad air.”
And as Coefield told the board Dec. 18, if the air quality stigma is gone, Missoula could become a more attractive place for numerous industries.