The choke’s on us

After two decades of rigorous attention to air quality in Mammoth, town officials have quietly gone lax in the last seven years, leaving the town seriously out of compliance with state air quality standards.

By abandoning the enforcement of woodstove change-out regulations adopted a quarter of a century ago, the town suffered 19 days last winter during which air quality standards were above state regulations, said Ted Schade, the air pollution control officer for the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District.

“You took on the responsibility to provide that enforcement for us,” he said in a presentation to the Mammoth Lakes Town Council on Aug. 7.

“I have regulations that require you to do that enforcement. I could write you tickets if you don’t enforce it. I have no intention of doing that, but you need to get back enforcing that.”

The state limit for air pollution is 50 micrograms per cubic meter, a much more strict code than the federal requirement of 150 micrograms per cubic meter.

Even so, some large urban areas in California have been able to beat Mammoth in the number of days with good air quality.

Beginning last winter, on Jan. 1, Mammoth ran through four straight days of excessive pollution, with levels that reached 95 micrograms per cubic meter on Jan. 4, 81 on Jan. 3 and 76 on New Year’s Day.

In all, the town exceeded state clean air standards 19 times last winter, with two days in December 2012; 13 days in January 2013; and two days in both February and March.

The reason, Schade said, was because of woodstove emissions, combined with particulate pollution from cinders on the town’s roads.

By far, the biggest culprit was woodstove emissions, which the town addressed in 1990 when woodstove pollution caused the town to routinely suffer smoke pollution similar to the smoke pollution Mammoth had during this past summer’s 19-day Aspen Fire.

To address the problem at the time, Mammoth’s nascent Town Council passed a measure requiring woodstove change-outs upon the completion of each real estate transaction.

With that regulation in force, air pollution levels dropped significantly during the 1990s.

However, in the past seven years, and in spite of numerous real estate transactions, pollution levels in Mammoth have stayed about the same, Schade said.

“We were under the impression that the rules and regulations that both the Town of Mammoth Lakes and the Great Basin District adopted in 1990 required a change-out of woodstoves upon the sale of houses,” Schade said.

“We were under the impression that because the frequency of turnover in real estate over the last 24 years, that we had changed out 90 percent of the old woodstoves.

“We’ve been kind of scratching our heads as to why we did not get cleaner air than we thought was possible. All the dates that we [had excessive pollution] were during cold, calm days during the holiday weekends and holidays.

“It’s cold and everybody lights their stoves; but if they all were compliant stoves, we shouldn’t be seeing those levels. 

“Come to find out, the town has not been enforcing those regulations since about 2006, so I’m disappointed,” Schade said.

“Some of them may have had their stoves changed, some of them may not have. We really don’t know.”

Schade said the issue is critical to the town if it wants to continue to market its so-called “clean air.”

“Air quality is so important for the Town of Mammoth Lakes. I believe that clean air is more important in Mammoth Lakes than in any other community in my very big district.”

To assess how big the problem might be, Schade said he is loaning the town a key member of his staff to help figure out how to get back on the wagon.

Lisa Isaacs, a Mammoth resident and an air quality consultant for the Great Basin district for the past two years, would be the person taking point on the project, he said.

“We need to re-establish the enforcement of the change-outs and go back through the real estate records,” Schade said. “The town planning department has that information, but they don’t have staff to work on it. 

“I’d suggest we go through that pile of data and that we commit, from this point on, to start re-enforcing the regulations,” Schade said.