A draft work plan to improve air quality in the Columbia Gorge will go before the public starting this week, with a meeting scheduled for Hood River on Thursday, and consideration by the Columbia River Gorge Commission later this summer.
The development is the latest attempt by local and state officials to balance environmental and economic concerns in the Scenic Area.
Earlier efforts to address the Scenic Area's airshed raised concerns from Gorge counties and economic development agencies over the possibility that local industry would shoulder a disproportionate share of the regulatory burden over emissions originating well outside the Scenic Area itself.
The new work plan addresses those concerns, according to Wasco County Commission Dan Ericksen and Dana Peck, resource development director for Klickitat County.
"We have been pretty involved," Ericksen said. "There has been a tremendous amount of input, and it's all been incorporated in this work plan. The state DEQ has gone out of the way to listen to concerns of the counties."
"All my concerns have been completely allayed," Peck added, saying his contention throughout the process has been that any potential rules be firmly based on science. It will under the current proposal, he added -- provided that special interests don't try to rush the issue.
The work plan is the creation of two groups, a "project coordination team," which includes representation by all six Scenic Area counties, as well as economic development agencies in Oregon and Washington and the tribes; and a "technical team" with scientists responsible for air quality strategies.
No regulations, such as to enforce emission control standards, are proposed in the work plan. Instead, an advisory committee is proposed, and that group would be responsible for recommending any regulations that eventually arise from the process. The earliest any such rules could take effect would be 2006.
That time frame recognizes the scope of the issue -- and the fact that jurisdiction over airshed quality and emission sources will not be limited to the Scenic Area, according to Annette Liebe, manager of airshed planning for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
"It's a very ambitious project," she said, with potential ramifications not only for the Scenic Area but the Portland metropolitan area, Boardman, and other potential sources of emission on both sides of the Cascades.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has provided $500,000 for initial work, and federal sources will be approached for additional funding.
The work is driven by a Gorge Commission amendment to the Scenic Area management plan calling for an air quality strategy in the region. According to Oregon DEQ, preliminary research indicates widespread haze in the Scenic Area, becoming severe as much as 15 percent of the time, and signs of pollution-borne acid rain affecting Scenic Area vegetation.
The task will be to determine where that pollution is originating, and to implement standards that address the true sources of emission, officials suggest.
This is the first phase of a process. The second phase, which will be refined later, will establish air quality monitoring, emission modeling studies, and other work.
Two early concerns, Ericksen said, were to look at root causes, and whether reductions would only occur in the Gorge without addressing outside emissions.
"Both have been addressed in this," he added. "For me, it's been a very positive experience," he said.
"We've felt the process has been open and fair, and that all of our ideas have either been addressed or incorporated," added Wasco County Planning Director Todd Cornett. He said it's important that all interested parties be represented in the upcoming process.
Proposed emission regulations would be weighed both for their environmental and economic impact, Liebe said.
The public review workshop on Thursday, June 28, will feature two sessions: from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., and from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Both will be in the Best Western Inn in Hood River.
The meeting, which will feature a workshop setting to encourage both oral and written comments, will seek public feedback on the proposed decision-making process.
Public comments on the draft work plan will be taken until 5 p.m. on July 17. The work plan will then be submitted to the Gorge Commission on Aug. 1, with a decision expected on Aug. 14.