HELENA – Lewis and Clark County leaders and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality are asking the federal government to take East Helena off a list of areas that don’t meet air quality standards.
County commissioners signed a letter Thursday, supporting DEQ’s request to remove the community’s status as a “non-attainment area.” That designation applies to areas that have higher levels of several common pollutants than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
The EPA designated East Helena as a non-attainment area for sulfur dioxide in 1978, then did the same for lead in 1991. Leaders say the vast majority of both pollutants came from ASARCO’s smelter operations. Since the smelter stopped operating in 2001, DEQ says emission levels have dropped considerably.
Kathy Moore, environmental division administrator for Lewis and Clark Public Health, said she has been looking for years at the possibility of removing East Helena’s non-attainment status.
“This is huge for East Helena,” she said. “This is something they carry around with them, and they don’t need it. It’s a beautiful little community. To have the air designated as in attainment of health standards – who doesn’t want to live in healthy air?”
Leaders said lifting that designation could also help encourage growth in East Helena. Stephen Coe, of DEQ’s Air Quality Bureau, said any business that moves into a non-attainment area has to take additional steps to ensure they do not create significant emissions.
“It could absolutely be a deterrent to businesses,” he said.
Commissioner Andy Hunthausen, who grew up in East Helena, said this request is an important milestone for the community.
“With these steps that we’re taking, and the cleanup process, it’s going to open up East Helena,” he said. “I think the future is bright.”
DEQ is accepting public comment on their request through July 9. If you would like to make a comment or see the full briefs in support of redesignation, information is available on the agency’s website.
Coe said once the comment period closes and Gov. Steve Bullock signs off on the official request, DEQ will submit it to the EPA. The EPA will then have 18 months to make a final decision.
Though it will still be some time before the non-attainment designation can be officially lifted, leaders say there is reason for optimism.
“This is really a red-letter day,” said Commissioner Susan Good Geise.