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What is in our mountain air?

Political debate, methods cloud results of Forest Service acid rain study in the Columbia River Gorge

October 29, 2005

A political tempest is once again gusting through the Columbia River Gorge over air quality issues.

This time, the storm is brewing over the results of a new U.S. Forest Service study on acid rain. Meteorologist and researcher Robert “Bob” Bachman claims that acidic pollutants are eroding Native American rock art and destroying sensitive plant species.

“I’m telling you this is an environmental disaster. It’s just unbelievable,” he said.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge and the Forest Service have long contended that the scenic corridor has some of the “dirtiest” air in the American West.

However, Mid-Columbia officials are suspicious that Forest Service studies, both past and present, have been engineered to stop business and residential growth.

And if potential employers are scared away by the threat of added air regulations, Gorge governments worry that the economic plight could worsen for Hood River and Wasco counties in Oregon and Klickitat and Skamania counties in Washington. These rural areas already have some of the highest unemployment rates — and lowest household incomes— in each state.

“Unfortunately, the latest Forest Service study (on acid rain) was not peer reviewed. The sampling techniques that were employed were not really looked at and critiqued by other scientists from clean air agencies,” said Wayne Wooster, economic development specialist for Klickitat County.

The four counties, which have the most land base in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, want to stop local citizens from being “penalized” by added emission controls.

They contend that regulations imposed on Gorge residents to clean up the air – such as a potential limitation on tree fruit smudge pots — would be unfair and ineffective. That argument is based on preliminary studies that show the majority of pollutants being generated in other locations.

“Our biggest concern is that the citizens of the Mid-Columbia will be asked to bear the burden when we are not the culprits,” said Hood River County Commission Chair Rodger Schock.

Bachman contends that high levels of nitrogen from fossil fuels are blowing into the Gorge from the Portland-metro area. In addition, his new work reflects increasing levels of nitrogen, along with ammonia, being carried by wind currents from the east.

Bachman said it appears these emissions are coming from a gigantic dairy complex and an old coal-burning power plant near Boardman.

Schock joined Hood River Mayor Linda Rouches in co-hosting the conference on acid rain in the Gorge with Columbia Riverkeeper on Wednesday night. Both Schock and Rouches wanted to learn more about controversial studies undertaken by Forest Service personnel.

Bachman and Dr. Linda Geiser, a Forest Service biologist, painted a grim picture of air quality in the Scenic Area at the Oct. 26 forum.

They said acidic pollutants are slowly destroying cultural resources and sensitive lichen species. Geiser said lichens are used as living air monitors by scientists because they absorb contaminants.

Concentrations of nitrogen, an element of both coal exhaust and ammonia, have risen almost 43 percent in one species of lichen collected at the east end of the Gorge during the last decade, according to Geiser.

Both she and Bachman are concerned that human health could also be adversely affected by acidic air, especially with people who suffer from asthma and other respiratory disorders. Bachman said the air quality in the Gorge is comparable to the smog that blankets skies over Southern California.

He made that assertion after spending five months studying water samples collected under pine trees a various sites throughout the Gorge.

Also factored in his report were other pollution sources, such as vehicles traffic on Interstate 84 in Oregon and State Route 14 in Washington.

“In the end, we all depend on the environment for the air that we breathe, the water that we drink and so forth,” said Geiser.

Geiser and Bachman acknowledged that neither the coal plant nor dairy to the east of the Gorge had exceeded Clean Air Act standards. Therefore, they said, no enforcement action could be taken unless changes were made in the law – and that would not happen without citizen activism.

About 50 people gathered in the reception room of the Hood River Hotel to hear the reports by the two professionals. They were told the Forest Service will continue with its acid rain studies over the next year to gather more data.

“We need to pay attention to these studies and make sure that they use the best possible science,” said Schock.

But, having the federal agency operate separately from other scientific studies of Gorge air has resurfaced criticism of a “hidden agenda” at work.

Critics have questioned why the Forest Service did not have technical experts from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) or Southwest Washington Clean Air Agency (SWWCAA) review its findings before they were publicly released.

Also questioned was Bachman’s practice of collecting water under pine trees, which are acidic and could have skewed the results, say opponents.

But Bachman is no stranger to controversy.

Several years ago, he raised another ripple of concern among Gorge governments when he drafted a report that ranked the Scenic Area as sixth-worst among 39 visibility-impaired areas in the American West.

Klickitat County immediately hired its own technical experts to participate in any study of Gorge air. Officials objected to Bachman’s assertion because the Gorge was being compared with uninhabited national parks and wilderness zones.

Concerns were expressed that the study had been generated to halt development since was tied to a request for stringent air quality regulations in the Gorge. And that, argued the counties, would have made it more difficult for residents to burn wood or outdoor natural debris. Fossil fuel emissions, such as diesel fumes from farming equipment, would also have come under stringent controls.

Wooster said it is too early to tell exactly what is going on with Gorge air quality – or to pinpoint the sources of pollution. He said DEQ and SWWCAA studies to provide answers are “alive and well” in spite of reports to the contrary.

On Wednesday, Bachman told his audience that state and federal budget shortfalls have stalled this work.

Paul Mairose, chief engineer for SWWCAA, said haze conditions throughout the Gorge were monitored from December of 2003 to February of 2005. His agency, which oversees Gorge air quality studies, expects a report on the data collected so far from the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, Nev., within the next month.

Mairose said that firm comprises national and worldwide leaders on air visibility issues – so he anticipates a comprehensive evaluation. He said the Gorge Commission will probably be briefed on the report sometime in December.

Mairose said the next step in Gorge air studies will be to pinpoint the source of emissions. And the modeling process for that task will factor in tough new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards on fossil fuels.

In addition, the EPA is calling for airsheds around wilderness areas, such as Mount Hood and Mount Adams, to have pristine conditions by 2064, so new regulations will be imposed by 2018 and other milestone years.

“The study that’s being done for the Gorge is really unprecedented, there’s been nothing like it anywhere else in the United States,’ said Mairose. “There are a lot of people who want to speculate but we have tried not to jump to any conclusions until we have all of the data.”

The Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE), DEQ and SWWCAA were tasked with performing the studies by the Columbia River Gorge Commission in 2000. The bi-state entity had been besieged with objections from local governments to a provision in the Scenic Area management plan, adopted in 1992, that called for consideration of a Class I Airshed designation over the Gorge.

Both Friends and the Forest Service had renewed requests for that designation following the release of Bachman’s report. However, Gorge officials argued that a Class I Airshed was typically reserved for uninhabited wilderness areas.

All four Gorge counties felt that even having the language included in the management plan severely inhibited their ability to attract new industry. Government leaders argued that a Class I Airshed was inappropriate for the Gorge because it was populated, located within a short distance from two major metropolitan areas and traversed by an interstate freeway and two railroad lines.

The language in the plan was amended in May of 2000 to require only that air visibility be protected.

The Commission then set up the framework for an air quality work plan that would accomplish that goal. It mandated that the two states oversee technical studies, although it offered no money for data collection. And that forced the state air regulatory agencies to scramble for money to perform the work.

Eventually, funding problems led DOE to drop its air quality program and the task was left to DEQ and SWWCAA.

On Wednesday, Bachman informed his audience that the “political will” did not exist at either the state or federal level to pursue an adequate Gorge air protection plan.

Both Wooster and Mairose disagree with that assertion. They believe that an effective protection plan cannot be set up until the entire scope of the problem is known – and the source of pollutants is correctly identified.

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