Air pollution study’s early data surprises researchers and residents

Conclusions are still months away

This screenshot, taken Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, from the PurpleAir website, shows how monitors record and report data in real time. (Courtesy photo)

This screenshot, taken Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, from the PurpleAir website, shows how monitors record and report data in real time. (Courtesy photo)

Mike Hekkers’ eyes and his nose disagree.

Early data from an ongoing Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation air quality study in Juneau show lower quantities of pollution — measured by monitors as particulate matter — than he expected, but he still smells cruise ship fumes in his Third Street front yard.

“The numbers look a little bit lower than I expected,” Hekkers said in a phone interview. “But it is alarming that we can smell exhaust at our house.”

Hekkers’ home is the site of one of 20 PurpleAir monitors, which report air-quality data online in real time, that were distributed around downtown Juneau in late April for the first ambient air quality study in Juneau in more than a decade. There are also sulfur dioxide monitors collecting information, but that data is not in real time. When the project was announced in February, Ed White, program director for DEC’s Division of Water Commercial Passenger Vessel Environmental Compliance Program, said $50,000 was budgeted for the project from fines collected from cruise ships that violated DEC guidelines.

[Polluting paradise? We’ll find out]

A sensor located at the Public Transit Center, for example, showed air quality in the “satisfactory and acceptable” range for nearly all of the Aug. 30-Sept. 5 time span. There was a brief spike into a pollution level that could be harmful to some people late Thursday night, but within a half-hour, air quality was back to normal.

Hekkers said he is waiting for a summary of the study’s final findings before drawing any conclusions about air quality in his neighborhood, but being able to see the monitors’ data makes him rethink some everyday things.

“One thing that concerns me is sidewalk-level breathability,” Hekkers said. “You can always smell some kind of exhaust downtown. It has made me double-think if biking through the downtown area is a good idea. I think this underscores the need to plug in the ships to shore power.”

Like Hekkers, Barbara Trost, environmental program manager for the DEC’s Division of Air Quality, said in a phone interview that in light of recent and frequent public concerns about air quality, the numbers were so far lower than she expected.

“I think we all expected the levels would be a lot higher based on the number of complaints that we heard, but then the complaints that we heard this year were a lot less,” Trost said.

Last year, a record 152 complaints about cruise ship emissions were received by the DEC’s cruise ship program. As of earlier this month, there had been about a 45-percent year-over-year decrease in such complaints.

[Cruise ship complaint figures may surprise you]

Hekkers’ and Trost’s observations were served with a large grain of salt since the study is months away from reaching conclusions.

Trost said data will be analyzed over the winter and a public presentation of findings is expected in spring of 2020

“With 20 sites, there’s a lot of data to look at,” Trost said.

What comes next?

Around the end of the month, the monitors will be collected and placed on the roof of Floyd Dryden Middle School near a more complex air monitor to help understand differences in readings among the different devices, Trost said.

Twenty air monitors distributed around downtown Juneau will eventually join this air monitoring equipment on top of Floyd Dryden Middle School roof. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

Twenty air monitors distributed around downtown Juneau will eventually join this air monitoring equipment on top of Floyd Dryden Middle School roof. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

The roughly $250 devices are not especially refined equipment, Trost said, and may provide different readings of the same air.

“They seem to be sensitive enough that they are picking up short-term emissions, be it a vehicle idling by or another type of pollution. Like, the site of the city hall tends to catch some of the emissions that are coming from street vendors. It seems like the equipment is decent enough for this type of study that we’re attempting here.”

However, Trost said it’s important to understanding differences in what the small machines report when analyzing the months of data that were recorded.

“There’s still a lot to be done once we get the samplers back from the middle school,” Trost said.

She said factors that could influence results, such as wildfire smoke, will also be taken into account when analyzing the information.

“We have seen some increases during the smoke intrusion that was seen in Juneau,” Trost said. “That obviously is another layer of complexity.”

It may not be particularly difficult to sort out.

“Usually, when smoke moves into an area, it’s very homogeneous,” Trost said. “It had enough time to thoroughly mix within the airshed, so usually at that point, the differences between a downtown measurement and a measurement in the valley shouldn’t be that different.”

That means the monitor at Floyd Dryden should show about the same smoke-related change as a monitor at Glacier Avenue downtown, which makes accounting for the smoke similar to determining the weights of two different people standing on scales holding identical 10-pound dumbbells.

Once results are finalized, Trost said it won’t necessarily answer every lingering question.

“That is frankly the pitfall of single-year air quality studies,” Trost said.

[An international summit is coming to Juneau, and a local environmental group is planning around it]

For example, if early observations hold, and it turns out air quality was better than expected, Trost said that doesn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t a problem before or explain why it changed.

Trost said that’s why the Environmental Protection Agency typically uses a three-year window for its air quality studies, and the summer of 2019 might not be the end of the line for looking into Juneau’s air quality.

“We will have to figure out if there is any need or desire to continue,” Trost said.

Whether the study resumes in the spring depends mostly on whether there are lingering concerns about whether this year’s air quality is typical. She’s hopeful that becomes clearer after the data is analyzed.

Hekkers said he’s hopeful that there will be more to the study and community members would likely be willing to help ensure it happens.

“If they did have loss of funding, a lot of us are willing to donate our WiFi,” Hekkers said.

• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.

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