The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is looking to expand its air quality monitoring as particulate pollution from wildfire smoke becomes more severe across the state and region, officials told a legislative interim panel this week.

The department’s 20 air quality monitors across the state flagged more days in 2021 for diminished air quality than any year in the past decade, even more destructive fire years like 2017 and 2012. And monitoring and analysis don’t come cheap.

“Our resources and funding do not match the amount of effort we put into this,” Bo Wilkins, DEQ Air Quality bureau chief, told the Environmental Quality Council this week. 

The department, to that end, is seeing around $450,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act grant funding to bolster its monitoring network, with a focus on improving coverage in under-served communities, a spokesperson said.

If the grant is awarded, the department will work with stakeholders to site new monitors in areas where areas where they’re “currently lacking, population centers, and economically underserved areas,” said Moira Davin, a spokesperson for DEQ. It also plans on building out a program to allow individuals and local organizations to access low-cost monitors, all of which will feed into a revamped version of the department’s online real-time air quality monitoring platform.

Wilkins told lawmakers on the committee that the department is also exploring new funding avenues to support these and other efforts going forward, including a possible review of open-burning fees, which have long been steady, he said. Those fees are set in department administrative rules.

“As DEQ budgets for the future we will explore all funding avenues including but not limited to legislative allocations, increasing federal dollars, fees, and grant opportunities,” Davin said in a follow up email.