HELENA – Montana regulators are officially asking the federal government to take East Helena off a list of areas that don’t meet national air quality standards.
The state Department of Environmental Quality submitted a formal request that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency remove the community’s status as a “non-attainment area.” That designation refers to areas that have higher levels of certain pollutants than the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality standards.
East Helena was designated non-compliant in 1979 for sulfur dioxide contamination, and in 1991 for lead. Most of those emissions came from ASARCO’s smelting operations.
David Klemp, chief of DEQ’s Air Quality Bureau, said ASARCO had already made improvements to their emission controls, bringing the East Helena area into compliance while the smelter was still open. Since the smelter closed in 2001, he said there have been no other serious sources of pollution in the area.
He said redesignation would be an important step for East Helena.
“It shows the community that they’re breathing healthy air,” he said.
Klemp said both DEQ and the EPA have recently prioritized taking areas off the non-attainment list.
“At the state level, we want to remove some of the administrative obligations that we have with non-attainment areas, and at the federal level it’s the same,” he said. “There’s administrative obligations associated with these non-attainment areas that are unnecessary.”
Klemp said a business that moves into a non-attainment area has to take additional steps to show they can offset any emissions they would create. He said redesignation would remove barriers to doing business in East Helena.
“It certainly opens up the opportunities for economic development that might not exist elsewhere. Companies may look for areas that aren’t in non-attainment.”
Leaders say it usually takes between 12 and 18 months for the EPA to decide whether to redesignate an area. Klemp said he’s hopeful the decision will be quick, because of the EPA’s interest in addressing non-attainment areas.
“We’d really like to thank the East Helena local officials, the Lewis and Clark County local health department for assisting us and being patient as we worked through some of the analysis that was necessary,” he said.
DEQ says, even if East Helena is found compliant with the air quality standards, the area will remain under a maintenance plan to continue environmental improvements.