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Gorge air study limited by lack of federal funds

Study designed to address presence of yellow haze that settles between cliffs


Gorge News Report

A shortage of federal funds is forcing researchers to limit the scope of an air quality study in the Columbia River Gorge. The study was designed to address the presence of a persistent yellow haze that settles between the cliffs.

Scientists already have begun collecting data for the study, which could be one of the most contentious and far-reaching studies on air pollution in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

Every summer, the west end of the Columbia River Gorge is choked with haze, obscuring picturesque views of the soaring cliffs and tumbling waterfalls. Eight miles east, the kind of smog usually found hanging over big cities builds up between the vast golden hills at levels that can be harmful to trees and plants. The pollution is a mixture of sulfates from fuel containing sulfur, such as diesel or coal; nitrates, which mostly come from cars and trucks; carbons from businesses and industry and from burning wood; and dust.

The haze is a "significant concern" for the Columbia River Gorge Commission, director Martha Bennett said.

The commission is charged with protecting the beauty of the 80-mile-long National Scenic Area corridor while allowing for careful development. The Gorge is the only National Scenic Area in the United States.

In 2000, commissioners added an air quality amendment to the Gorge Management Plan, calling for state and federal agencies to identify pollution sources and develop a strategy to improve air quality.

Those agencies created a two-phase plan that was projected to cost more than $7 million. Gorge Commissioners approved it in 2001. But Congress funded only $670,000 of the initial $1.2 million request for phase one, forcing researchers to dramatically scale back the study.

At the same time, the Washington Department of Ecology dropped out because of state budget cuts.

Researchers cut costs by taking advantage of other studies by Washington universities and other agencies on a regional level. They also reduced pollution monitoring from two years to 12 weeks by concentrating on known periods of heavy haze.

"We're not going to be as data rich," said Paul Mairose, chief engineer for the Southwest Clean Air Agency in Vancouver. Still, it will be the most comprehensive study yet of Gorge air quality, he said.

Researchers think most of the haze comes from urban areas outside the Gorge. But the winds aren't carrying just Portland and Vancouver's car exhaust, industrial smoke, and loose soil. Seattle, the Willamette Valley, Spokane, the Tri-Cities, and Canada also could be contributing, depending on wind direction and weather, researchers said.


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