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Newcomers to Billings’ dry climate might take one look at the sky and ask, “Where’s all that smoke coming from?”

Locals know that the white plumes to the east, south and west are coming from the area’s three refineries and sugar beet factory, but not everyone can tell whether it’s smoke or something else.

Ryan Wegner, manager of finance and public affairs at Phillips 66 Billings Refinery, explains why anyone who says the Big Sky is filled with anything other than steam is just blowing smoke.

“Many folks see these plumes from our facility and believe they are something other than what they actually are — steam. In the process of refining oil into gasoline and diesel fuel, much heat is generated which then needs to be dissipated through heat exchangers,” he said. “We use a number of different types of heat exchangers at the refinery, and the white plumes rising from the refinery are steam from cooling towers.”

So it’s not air pollution that’s harmful to the environment, even at the sugar beet factory.

“That is 99.9-percent water vapor of all the stuff you see coming out,” said Ray Bode, factory manager at the Western Sugar Cooperative manufacturing facility.

Because the percentage of pollution is “stack-specific” and varies depending the process and what is being combusted at each site (refinery or otherwise), David Klemp, Bureau Chief of the Air, Energy and Mining Division at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, cannot confirm the exact percentage of pollutants. However, what is being exhausted in Billings is below the acceptable levels and in compliance with ambient air quality standards.

“If they remain below those standards, they (the pollutants within the steam) should not be harmful to human health,” Klemp said.

While on a tour at the Lovell, Wyoming sugar manufacturing facility, a child told a factory manager, “Oh look, they’re making clouds.” And that pretty much sums up just what we're doing — making clouds, Bode said.

“If you look towards the factory now, the main plume you’re going to see if it’s cold outside is our boiler house stack. (It) is the tall, relatively narrow stack that's sending a white plume of vapor out, similar to the oil refinery stacks,” he said. “We have coal boilers, and as the exhaust is coming off of the boilers, that exhaust goes through a series of very fine water sprays — wet scrubbers — that remove any particulate matter that may be in the boiler exhaust.”

There are several smaller white plumes of water vapor coming from various parts of the factory.

“At some point, as you follow it up in the sky, it disappears,” Bode said. “All the water vapor evaporates and becomes part of the air.”

Klemp is trained to discern steam from smoke.

“You can see you’ve got some well-defined borders on that (steam) plume and then it stops abruptly,” he said. “Smoke would generally dissipate across the horizon. That’s how you can distinguish (between them).”

The water vapor condenses in cold temperatures, making thicker plumes during winter.

“Western Sugar must comply with many environmental regulations, including the Title V regulations under the Clean Air Act. We have to monitor the boiler stack continuously so that we’re not emitting any particulates,” Bode said. “We have people on site that visually monitor those plumes so that there are no particulates in it.”

Phillips 66 Billings Refinery operates under and complies with strict air permits issued by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

“This permit ensures that our facility limits particulates or gases into the atmosphere that would impact our health or skyline,” said Wegner.

It’s a common misconception that the exhaust from the refineries and sugar beet factory are harming the environment.

“All of us live in this area, too, and the last thing we’re going to do is make it less livable, less likable,” said Bode. “To have people think that we’re putting all this smoke in the air, that’s just wrong.”

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Niche Publications

Senior Editor for Niche Publications of the Billings Gazette