Agencies collaborate to combat Nome's dust problem
With the spring comes sunshine, wildflowers, baseball, and unfortunately, dust. Clouds of dust. What can Nome do about the dust?
An assembly of interested individuals representing groups which deal with the problem met on a conference call last week to discuss Nome’s issues with dust and what might be done to mitigate the airborne particles. “We get complaints and I won’t say who they’re from,” said Molly Birnbaum, air quality program manager at Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation. “A lot of the phone calls was on where is the dust coming from and we talked about the Bypass Road,” she said Friday over the phone. “I think from what I heard is that’s where all the dust is coming from.”
Formerly known as the Bypass Road, Greg Kruschek Avenue was the focus of the phone call but not the only source of dust talked about. “DEC identified a couple of others, like Norton Sound parking lot, a lot over here, a lot behind the Country Store that’s open,” said Nome’s Acting City Manager John Handeland. “There was some discussion of whether or not tailing piles were contributing to it.”
They talked about the speed limit and how it affects the dust. “If we reduced it by 10 miles, if we got it down to 25, it would take care of fifty percent of the dust and if we took it down to 20 it might take care of a hundred percent,” said Handeland.
Participating in the conference call were also Calvin Schaeffer and Stosh Labinski of Nome’s DOT, Nome Eskimo Community’s Shane Smithhisler, Joe Horton of the City of Nome, Kenny Hughes of the city planning commission, and others concerned with dust. “We talked about going out to Nome before and putting on a series of workshops,” said the DEC’s Birnbaum. “But it hasn’t really worked out because of timing and changeover with administration. Things just kept coming in the way. So we opted to at least get everybody together on the phone to talk about some of the issues.”
An important word in the conversation was “palliative.” That’s a medical term, which describes an agent used to treat the symptoms without actually addressing the fundamental cause. When speaking of road dust, a palliative cuts down on the dust but does not permanently solve the problem. Nome’s palliative is calcium chloride. “It draws moisture out of the humidity in the air,” said DOT’s Stosh Labinski. “When we get it it’s in pellet form and we use our sander truck to spread that out. We’ve got different ways we can apply it.” Labinski says 150 tons of the chemical will be arriving on the first barge. It’s cheap. The DOT has two gravel roads in town, Little Creek Road and Center Creek Road, and they maintain the bypass, whose ownership, city or state, is unresolved. They use calcium chloride on the Teller Highway as far as the Penny River Bridge and on the Council Road from the end of the asphalt in town to Farley’s Camp. They also treat parts of the Beam Road with the dust palliative.
The discussion of the palliative touched on Nome’s fine content, the amount of fine-grained gravel in the road surface. If the fine is too coarse it won’t bind with the calcium chloride and the dust will fly. “We also had guys from UAF on the call,” said Birnbaum. “They’re experts on dust using palliatives. And we did learn that the fines for the road are not in the best condition for the palliatives they’re using to work the most efficiently. So I’m thinking there will probably be a follow-up phone call on how to add more fines. The road is too coarse for the palliatives to really work.” Birnbaum said there will be more discussion on how to make the calcium chloride work better.
Track-on is another problem the city is dealing with. When a vehicle drives down a muddy street the tires accumulate mud. Once on the paved streets that mud comes off the tires, the same as a youngster can track mud onto the kitchen floor. John Handeland observed that we’re not going be able to pave everything, especially in the current economic climate. He doesn’t think the mine tailings are a source of dust. “We did talk about the possibilities of doing some dust studies but the engineers said we all know that it’s dusty. We don’t need any more data to prove that.”
“We talked about beautification and vegetation,” said Birnbaum. “We looked at some satellite images of Nome and there’s very little vegetation inside the community. All that dust contributes to the problem. So it’s not just a city problem it’s also residential. We talked about doing a beautification program.” There are big open areas near the schools and the hospital. The Rec Center is on a big lot with no ground cover. Birnbaum thinks planting grasses and lawns would cut down on the dust.
“There’ll be more conversations,” she said. “Hopefully we can keep the conversation going with the right people talking so we can identify some solutions and keep moving forward. It eats up a lot of our time to get these complaints. And it happens every spring, every fall from Nome.”