Gorge air quality focus of lawsuit

Friends says panel’s approval of strategy fails to protect area

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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Friends of the Columbia Gorge has appealed the Columbia River Gorge Commission’s decision to approve an air quality strategy that the advocacy group says fails to “protect and enhance” air quality as required by federal and interstate laws.

“The Columbia Gorge is a national scenic treasure that is suffering from significant levels of air pollution,” said Michael Lang, the Friends’ conservation director. “Unfortunately, state air quality agencies and the Gorge commission have adopted a do-nothing strategy that fails to include any mandatory measures specifically targeted to reduce air pollution affecting the Gorge and its communities. This is wrong, it’s illegal and we are asking the court to send the Gorge commission and state agencies back to the drawing board to develop a strategy with some teeth in it.”

The appeal, filed with the Oregon Court of Appeals, challenges the commission’s decision in September to follow a recommendation from Washington and Oregon environmental regulators to implement the Regional Haze Program, part of the federal Clean Air Act.

Finding challenged

The program sets standards intended to lead to pristine air quality with “no man-made impairments” in national parks and wilderness areas by the year 2064. It requires five-year progress reports and stringent emission controls on major sources of haze.

State environmental officials concluded that due to the mix of urban and rural activities in and around the Gorge, air quality never will reach “natural conditions” such as those in pristine wilderness areas. The Regional Haze Rule provides the only legal framework for regulating air pollution in the Gorge, they argued.

Friends disagrees.

“The strategy is devoid of any mandatory measures to ensure that new pollution sources protect the Columbia River Gorge by limiting air pollution,” Lang said in a statement.

He cited two examples: Diesel locomotive exhaust from coal trains that would supply proposed export terminals in Longview and Bellingham, and a proposal by a Portland utility to build two natural gas-fired power plants in Troutdale, Ore., just outside the scenic area boundaries.

“The Columbia River Gorge is an exhaust pipe for air pollution generated from sources in the Portland-Vancouver metro area and the Columbia Basin,” Lang said. “Pollution sources west of the Gorge are largely responsible for air pollution in the summer. Sources east of the Gorge are mainly responsible for air pollution in the winter. According to the U.S. Forest Service, visibility is impaired at least 95 percent of days. Acid rain and fog events have reached the acidity of vinegar. Ecosystem harm is certain and Native American cultural resources are at risk.”