Steamboat Springs In a 30-minute period around 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, air quality monitors on top of the Routt County Courthouse in downtown Steamboat Springs recorded an average of 14.5 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic foot of Yampa Valley air.
Federal environmental standards say 150 micrograms per cubic foot, measured over a day, is a level that’s out of compliance and potentially damaging to health. Wednesday’s measurement is well below that level, and it was lower than Steamboat’s average for 2009 of 23.5 micrograms per cubic foot.
In other words, Routt County environmental health officials say, the air up there is pretty darn fair.
Particulate matter in Steamboat Springs hasn’t reached 150 micrograms per cubic foot on any single day since 2003. The city’s worst day in 2009 averaged 83 micrograms per cubic foot, signaling consistently positive air quality measurements that are a significant change from the late ’80s and early ’90s.
A sometimes-visible haze over the Yampa Valley in those years — and air quality problems across Western Slope communities — spurred pollution policies and procedures that have had lasting impacts across the region.
“We’ve seen a real positive trend in the air quality in Steamboat,” said Routt County environmental health specialist Jason Striker, who regularly checks the monitors atop the courthouse.
Four of the monitors take daily measurements on a rotating basis. A fifth monitor tracks data in real time and sends readings to Striker’s computer and to city and county road departments. From the four monitors measuring by the day, Striker sends one filter each day to the state public health department.
“We’re monitoring air quality 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Striker said.
That data directly contributes to the state’s annual air quality report.
The most recent report details 2009 air quality statistics for municipalities across the state, including Steamboat. The city’s average during that year of 23.5 micrograms of particulate matter, which can be anything from wood or coal smoke to ground-up particles of scoria from local roads, is comparable to other mountain communities. Pagosa Springs averaged 25 micrograms in 2009, Crested Butte averaged 27.4, Aspen measured 16.3, and Breckenridge averaged 17.6.
Mike Zopf, director of the Routt County Department of Environmental Health, shrugged off the slightly better levels in Aspen and Breckenridge, noting that all levels are well below concern from the Environmental Protection Agency and the differences are minimal. He said vehicle traffic is a primary driver of air quality measurements and credited the city of Steamboat Springs for its street-sweeping efforts.
“My street department gets a report daily on what it’s reading, and once it hits a threshold, they go out and sweep,” city Public Works Director Philo Shelton said.
Sweeping the streets to reduce air pollution likely has minimal impacts to vehicle traction, Shelton said, because such sweeping usually is triggered by air quality levels when pavement is dry and dusty, not snowpacked.
The state has not prepared air quality statistics for 2010. But Zopf said he expects more of the same.
“I would say we’re trending along the same levels of 2008 and 2009,” Zopf said, before adding a bit of weather-related optimism.
“If it keeps snowing, it’ll be lower.”
Echoing Shelton, Zopf said heavy snow periods keep the dust down.
“Not only do we have good skiing, but we have better air quality when that happens,” Zopf said. “So keep it coming.”
— To reach Mike Lawrence, call 970-871-4233 or e-mail mlawrence@SteamboatToday.com