Closer Look: No Simple Pollution Solution - Strategy for improving Columbia River Gorge visibility remains hazy

Tuesday, September 2, 2003

By KATHIE DURBIN, Columbian staff writer

Columbia River Gorge, WA -Sometime this fall, scientists will move trailers filled with sensitive and expensive air-monitoring instruments to sites at Bonneville Dam and Wishram, near the east end of the Columbia River Gorge. For three months during the winter, the instruments will measure the presence of sulfates, nitrates, organic and elemental carbon, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide in the air.

Next summer, the instruments will be deployed for three months at Bonneville Dam and Mount Zion, near the west end of the gorge.

With the data collected, air quality experts will be able for the first time to identify with precision what is in the haze that obscures views in the gorge both summer and winter.

The unanswered question: What will they do with that data?

Haze is noticeable in the gorge at least 90 percent of the time and severe 15 percent of the time, according to a decade of visibility monitoring by the U.S. Forest Service.

Yet three years after the Columbia River Gorge Commission set in motion an ambitious air quality study that was supposed to yield a strategy for improving visibility, the path to arriving at such a strategy is far from clear.

Neither the gorge commission nor the air quality agencies that are carrying out the study have set any measurable goals for clearing the air. The law that established the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area says only that the commission must "protect and enhance" air quality.

"We feel that 'protect and enhance' is too vague," said Bob Elliott, executive director of the Southwest Clean Air Agency. "Does that mean visibility should be 100 miles for 90 percent of the time? Or 50 miles for 90 percent of the time? Or what does the public want?"

Elliott's agency, based in Vancouver, stepped in to fill the gap this year when the Department of Ecology eliminated its entire visibility program and its involvement in the gorge air study.

Because Oregon and Washington slashed funding for the study, a 32-member advisory committee that was supposed to convene this year to begin working on a strategy won't begin meeting until 2005 at the earliest.

Air quality officials from Oregon and Washington say they have no money to staff the unwieldy committee, which was expanded to give every possible interest group a seat at the table. When the committee does convene, its vague charge is to review the air-monitoring data and "lead a public process to design an air quality strategy that helps protect valued resources in the Gorge and meets the dual purposes of the Scenic Area Act." The act's dual purposes are protecting and enhancing scenery and natural and cultural resources in the gorge while supporting local economies.

Annette Liebe, an air quality specialist with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, admits to doubts about whether that process will work. "We may revisit whether that is the most efficient decision-making process," she told the gorge commission at its Aug. 12 meeting in The Dalles, Ore.

If the committee does convene, there's no guarantee it will ever reach consensus on a strategy. That's because improving air quality in the gorge is and always has been a political issue.

"What we have seen in the past three years is a compromise between science and politics," declared Forest Service meteorologist Bob Bachman, an insistent advocate for new regulations to limit gorge air pollution, at the Aug. 12 meeting. "There hasn't been a single ounce of air pollution reduced."

Instead, he said, the Forest Service, which is conducting its own air quality studies, has measured increases in some haze-producing pollutants in the Columbia Basin over that period. For instance, fine particulates that blow into the gorge from the east in winter have been measured at levels that pose a threat to human health.

Cold, moist air from the Columbia Basin forms a fog of polluted, stagnant air that drains into the gorge from the east in winter and can hang on for weeks. The Forest Service has committed $54,000 to sample fog water in the basin this fall and winter to determine exactly what pollutants it contains. It is spending an additional $85,000 for a wider study of air quality in wilderness areas and the eastern Columbia Basin.

A coal-fired plant in Boardman, Ore., east of the gorge, produces 30,000 tons per year of sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide contributes to acid deposition, which may be threatening American Indian rock art in the gorge. The gorge has an ozone problem, too, Bachman said, created by emissions from vehicles and natural gas-fired power plants.

There are wheat fields throughout the Columbia basin.

"Wheat is extremely sensitive to ozone, " Bachman said.

On the positive side, sulfate levels in the gorge are declining, Bachman told the gorge commission, in part because of strict new emission controls at the Centralia coal-fired plant and because of the closure or mothballing of aluminum plants in Vancouver, Goldendale, Troutdale, Ore., and The Dalles, Ore.

At the Aug. 12 meeting, where Elliott presented a proposal for a scaled-back air quality study, Bachman didn't bother to hide his frustration.

Compromising on data gathering is short-sighted, he said. "The health of humans and ecosystems is inseparable. Clean air is essential, and science is a foundation for taking action."

Bachman urged the commission to consider interim measures to limit new sources of pollution while the study is under way. His particular concern is the potential for a slew of new natural gas-fired energy plants along the Bonneville Power Administration power grid in and near the gorge.

Nearly 30 natural gas plants were proposed for licensing during the energy crunch of 2001. A BPA study released late that year predicted significant deterioration of visibility in the gorge if all the plants on the drawing board were actually built.

Yet Bachman's warning comes as Klickitat County prepares to put out the welcome mat for energy developers. A proposal unveiled in early August would put the south half of the county in an "energy overlay zone" where siting of new energy plants would be expedited.

A draft environmental-impact statement prepared for the county predicts the eventual development of four 250-megawatt or three 350-megawatt natural gas thermal projects and two 50-megawatt biomass projects, which generate energy from renewable organic materials.

The draft environmental-impact statement notes that "Biomass and natural-gas-fired plants could affect visibility within the scenic area, depending on their location and the mitigation imposed."

In the meantime, Bachman has called for recruiting a small committee of politically well-connected opinion leaders to raise funds for a more complete air study, promote voluntary efforts to curtail pollution and promote public awareness of air quality problems in the gorge.

But Bachman's voice has not always been heeded, and it's not clear that it will be this time, either. Dana Peck, Klickitat County's director of economic development, told the gorge commission Aug. 12 that the county opposes allowing the Forest Service to pursue a "unilateral approach."

He warned the commission not to tamper with the air study work plan, which was developed over several months by state and federal agencies, county representatives and interest groups.

"Klickitat County strongly objects to having the Forest Service come in at the end of the process with its own proposal and ignoring the coordinated interjurisdictional process that has taken place to date," Peck said.

In their revised work plan, air quality agencies left unresolved what the end product of the study will be. But Martha Bennett, the gorge commission's executive director, pointed out that under the scenic-area management plan, the end product must be an air quality strategy of some sort.

"I don't know what the strategy will have in it or specifically what the public process and the decision-making process will be," she admitted. "Right now, that is the weakest part of the plan."


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