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Will wildfire smoke affect air quality ratings?

Are we at risk of having our air quality penalized by the Environmental Protection Agency because of all the wildfire smoke?

— No name given  

We're likely in the clear (air), dear reader.

Ultimately, even when wildfire smoke affects air quality — which it certainly did for 29 days straight in the Rogue Valley last month — the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality can go through a process to have that data removed after it's submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency. 

"There is a mechanism for removing data from events outside the control of the community," said EPA air quality planner Justin Spenillo. "You can pull it out of the calculation if it meets certain criteria." 

In this context, that wildfire smoke would be called an "exceptional event," as it isn't a steady stream of exhaust from industrial sites or wood stoves. The smoke can cause levels for PM 2.5, a small particulate matter that can bury deep into the lungs, to go way up. Under federal guidelines, communities have to keep the measurement at or below 35 micrograms of PM 2.5 per cubic meter. 

"We work with (DEQ) to identify which dates they think are the ones that would be needing the exceptional event rule criteria. They're the ones responsible for marking that data," Spenillo said. 

Wildfire smoke isn't the only factor taken into consideration concerning exceptional events. In 2013, for example, communities across the state were affected by inversions that contributed to downgrading air quality everywhere.

"2013 was a bad year for everybody. That really kicked things up a notch," said DEQ air quality specialist Larry Calkins. "It would be unlikely that EPA would designate Medford as non-attainment for those years." 

Communities that don't meet that standard are given a "non-attainment" status, for which they must make a plan to get the levels back down to those accepted under EPA guidelines. 

"There are no processes or regulatory decisions that are going on right now," Spenillo said. "I don't think there's anything to be alarmed about." 

Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. To see a collection of columns, go to mailtribune.com/youasked. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.