Old worries waft over airshed study

Budget cuts could affect Scenic Area review

Severe budget cuts for a Washington State agency involved in a study of Gorge air has raised old worries over interim regulations.

“We are worried that if the study can’t be funded the Columbia River Gorge Commission will move in with ‘temporary’ standards when there is no direct evidence to support that a pollution problem even exists,” said Hood River Port Director Dave Harlan.

Martha Bennett, Commission executive director, joins Harlan in the belief that a scientific study is necessary to determine what, if any, measures are needed to protect the Scenic Area airshed. She said without that work the highly divisive issue of temporary regulations could again be brought to the table by a stakeholder agency.

“The problem is that if we don’t proceed with the study we go back to the old debate and that is not very constructive,” Bennett said. “We need to bring all the voices together to pursue a common plan.”

At issue is the probable elimination of the Department of Ecology’s budget that supports all visibility programs, a reduction of about $641,000 and staff cuts of four employees. Since DOE has taken the lead on the technical portion of the Gorge air study, officials are concerned about the loss of expert opinion as well.

The Washington agency is one of the regulatory team members that has been laying the groundwork since 2000 for the upcoming study. That interagency group also includes officials from Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, the Southwest Washington Clean Air Agency, U.S. Forest Service, and local governments, with participation from other involved stakeholders such as the Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

Bennett said the Commission will urge Washington Gov. Gary Locke to find funding for at least the first phase of the Gorge work that will locate pollution sources over a two year period. The final portion of the study, expected to last another three years, will determine whether any identified problems are improving from the enactment of new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air quality improvement goals.

The technical studies are expected to cost about $1.6 million. The EPA has provided $500,000 of that funding and another $750,000 is expected to be approved by federal legislators in next year’s fiscal budget. The remaining dollars have yet to be found.

Harlan said before the Commission decides to consider “special rules” for the Gorge airshed, both states and federal government should ante up enough money to prove there is a direct need for that action.

He is joined in that belief by numerous Mid-Columbia officials who fought against a proposal for interim air quality measures in early 2001. That suggestion was made by the Forest Service and Friends which wanted “something” done to protect air quality in the scenic corridor until a permanent plan was implemented.

That suggestion raised an outcry from area officials who said it was premature to begin discussing the issue before scientific data had been gathered — especially since preliminary studies have shown that the majority of pollutants appear to be coming from Portland and Vancouver.

Harlan said the idea for the study was brought forward by the Commission in May of 2000 when it struck language from its land-use management plan asking that the Scenic Area be studied for potential as a Class I airshed, a designation normally reserved for wilderness zones. At that time, the bi-state entity directed that a special air quality improvement work plan be developed.

The Columbia Gorge Economic Development Association had asked that the Class I study be dropped because the possibility of stringent air quality regulations was keeping businesses out of the Gorge and adversely affecting local economies.

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