4 The record articles

Adulting, Consulting, and Smoke School

Posted: October 9th, 2017

Author: All4 Staff 

It’s almost 8AM and I’m ringing the bell trying to enter a building that, for all intents and purposes, looks closed. As a former band kid, I strive to be early, and start pushing the button more intensely, as though that might get the door to open and I can still be marginally early to my first ever Method 9 Smoke School.

Spoiler: it works, and soon enough, an exasperated man lets me into the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VADEQ) and directs me towards a near-empty conference room. It’s 8AM now, and the instructors haven’t arrived yet. As a Northern VA native, I know all about unpredictable traffic, so I brushed off their absence as commuting troubles and pulled out my current read: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. When they arrive half an hour later, I discover class doesn’t start until 9 or so; the online agenda had, for some reason, not been updated. (This did of course explain why the people at VADEQ were surprised to see someone there before 8AM- they don’t open until 8:30).

And as class begins, we get to the topic on hand: what is “Smoke School” and what does it mean for you, me, and everyone else in-between? Smoke School – more technically, Visible Emissions Observer Training – trains people to become certified visible emissions (VE) observers according to 40 CFR Part 60 (Standards of Performance for New Stationary Sources, or NSPS). In lecture, we learned about the history and theory behind the Method 9, and how to perform a Method 9 to provide measurements of opacity using our freshly-calibrated eyeballs (thanks for that, Renee!). The following day was the actual certification test, where we learned the opacity standards (25%-50%-75%) for white and black smoke, and then took the test, which consisted of 50 total readings (25 each for white and black smoke).

Opacity, at its simplest, is an indicator of the relative amount of particulate matter (PM) from a stack or flue. More opaque smoke can be indicative of greater PM concentrations. Certified VE observers can ensure source emissions comply with federal, state, and local regulations that specify an opacity or visible emissions limitation by following the Method 9. For example, prior to attending the course, I had the opportunity to observe a Method 9 test at a hospital that was required not to exceed 0% opacity emissions per their state implementation plan (SIP) limit.

Our other shared concern? Under the Clean Air Act, opacity emissions in excess of certain requirements can result in fines from $10,000 to $37,500 per day- and nobody likes fines or breaking the law. With that said, I’m excited to have earned this certification because it expands the kind of project work I can support for our clients as a recent grad and new hire still learning about adulting and consulting. So: if you have any questions regarding smoke school, visible emissions observations, have advice on adulting/consulting, or just want to know what The Disappearing Spoon is, please feel free to contact us.


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