Gorge Commission nears decision on air quality issue

Mid-Columbia officials are nervous that a balanced approach to air pollution studies in the Gorge may waft away on political undercurrents.

That lingering concern has resurfaced as the Columbia River Gorge Commission gets set to review a draft multi-year work plan. The bi-state entity will discuss the proposed research on air quality in the Scenic Area at 10:15 a.m. on Tuesday at Rock Creek Center in Stevenson, Wash.

Government leaders from Hood River, Klickitat, Wasco, Clark and Skamania counties believe a "hidden agenda" may resurface which is expressly intended to stop businesses from locating in the Gorge by the enactment of temporary "protection" regulations.

"Rushing to judgment and imposing interim standards without scientific background is not how this world runs when it comes to regulations," Dana Peck, Klickitat County's resource development director, told the Hood River County Commission on Monday in a briefing on the issue.

But Nathan Baker, Friends of the Gorge staff attorney, said the Portland-based environmental group believes that interim measures are necessary to protect the Scenic Area during the scientific analysis which could take up to seven years.

He said 44 new power plants are currently planned for construction in the Northwest, up to 20 of which will be located within or in close proximity to the Scenic Area.

"Over the next several years, air quality agencies will be approving pollution permits for many new sources in or near the Gorge airshed that will be likely to adversely affect air quality and visibility in the Gorge," said Baker in his written statement to the Commission. "Under the proposed work plan, the agencies will allow the problem to worsen for at least five years before even considering new regulations to protect the Gorge."

Peck said the Friends argument appears not to take into account the success of new air regulations already on the books. He said Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has reported that ozone levels in Portland have not risen during the past 10 years and other air pollutants have actually decreased -- in spite of a 20 percent growth in the state's population.

"The real message is that the Clean Air Act works," said Peck.

Martha Bennett, executive director for the Gorge Commission, said staffers are also recommending that stop-gap protection measures not be considered until the first phase of the draft plan, a 18-24 month foundation study, is completed and potential courses of action can be more clearly determined.

"This work plan takes a balanced approach to the air quality that is based on good science," said Bennett. "The study also is based on building consensus, and by the time we come up with regulations we will have solid agreement from all the agencies involved."

The Hood River county board augmented that recommendation by sending a letter to the Gorge Commission this week asking that it stay the course recommended by three air regulatory agencies. Similar letters were drafted in the four other involved counties. (Peck did not approach Multnomah County because of time constraints).

"We need to do anything we can to support Klickitat County," said Commissioner Chuck Thomsen.

In March, Klickitat County took the lead among Gorge counties to ensure that air pollution studies were fair and balanced by hiring two air experts to participate in development of the study plan. Peck said the current methodology of the draft strategy has achieved that goal and he is confident that, if no "short cuts" are taken, any necessary future action will be clearly demonstrated.

He believes the upcoming study may show no need for "special rules" in the Gorge if it factors in the added protection levied by new Environmental Protection Agency regulations in recent years.

Earlier this year, an individual from the U.S. Forest Service and Friends made an unsuccessful bid to have temporary air quality standards set in place while the air pollution studies were underway. However, Mid-Columbia officials protested that recommendation, asking how interim measures could work when the sources of any existing pollution had not yet been identified and early studies appeared to show that the majority of contributors were based in the Portland and Vancouver metro areas. Last week Jergen Hess, a Forest Service spokesperson from its Scenic Area office, said the official stance of the federal agency was that the already lengthy study process would only be made longer by multiple discussions over enactment of temporary standards.

"We do have a concern about the interim period but we do not want to take time and energy away from the strategy," said Hess.

Shortly after the subject was tabled by the Interagency Air Quality Coordination Team, a letter written by the Forest Service to the city of Goldendale last fall raised more controversy. The letter drew sharp criticism from Klickitat County because the federal body had already taken the stand toward development of an energy plant that "air pollution concentrations must be reduced" because to do otherwise "would be in violation of the spirit and intent" of new language in the Gorge Commission's management plan. However, Hess said the Forest Service routinely submits voluntary comments to regulatory bodies over development proposals and these entities "can do with those comments as they feel appropriate."

Last spring the bi-state entity traded the call for a Class I airshed study with development of a plan to ensure that "existing levels of air visibility not be degraded."

The Commission directed DEQ and the Washington State Department of Ecology to head up the Interagency Air Quality Coordination Team. That team was mandated to develop the timeline and tasks needed to preserve and protect air quality in the Scenic Area. The group included representatives from the Southwest Washington Clean Air Agency, Forest Service, six Scenic Area counties, Friends and other stakeholders.

The project coordination group worked with a "technical team" of scientists to prepare a preliminary study that will take place over 18-24 months and cost about $1.5 million. The Environmental Protection Agency has provided $500,000 for the initial work that will compile cost estimates and preliminary pollution data. That information will be used to set up the second phase of the research, which is estimated to cost between $3-$10 million, that will pinpoint actual emission sources both inside and outside the Gorge.

"Air quality is already a problem some of the time within the Scenic Area," said Bennett. "Air quality is a significant economic and recreation resource we must protect."

The draft air study plan proposes no regulations, but recommends that an advisory committee be formed to recommend any regulations that could eventually arise from the process. That appointed body would include a balanced representation of elected officials, environmental, economic, and public interests. Its selected clean air strategy would be reviewed by the Oregon and Washington air regulators.

PULL QUOTE

"Air quality is a significant economic and recreation resource we must protect."

-- Martha Bennett

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