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News / Health / Clark County Health

Vancouver among 16 communities most impacted by air pollution, according to new state report

Residents died average of 2.4 years earlier than rest of state, Department of Ecology finds

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 2, 2024, 6:36pm

Vancouver residents are more likely than those in most places around Washington to become seriously ill from air pollution, according to a new state report.

The Washington Department of Ecology rated Vancouver among 16 communities in the state most impacted by air pollution, including carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particle pollution and sulfur dioxide.

Residents in these areas die an average of 2.4 years earlier than in the rest of the state, and are twice as likely to have poor health, including lung and heart disease, according to the report.

The reviewed towns and cities in the report vary in location, size and composition. They are rural, suburban and urban. But those most affected are labeled “overburdened,” meaning they face greater health risks than most communities.

Columbian Conversations: Wildfires in SW Washington

Wildfire season. Smoke season. It’s now a part of our lives in Southwest Washington. Smoke drifts in from beyond our borders — and now wildfires are igniting in our backyards. As summer approaches we are all asking: Will our air fill with smoke?

The Columbian Conversation, hosted by Associate Editor Will Campbell, will uncover what’s happening and what we can do about it. The event will feature Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, a firefighter who has struggled to contain a blaze on the front lines, an expert on the science of ecosystems after a fire rips through a forest and an emergency services manager on how people should respond to this new and growing threat.

Panelists Include:

Hilary S. Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands

John Nohr, Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue fire chief

Michael McNorvell, Underwood Conservation District

Scott Johnson, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency

Marc Titus, Washington State Department of Natural Resources

When: 4:30p.m. Feb. 1

Where: The Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver

Register:columbian.ticketbud.com

Vancouver’s overburdened population includes 103,388 residents, many in low-income areas, according to the report.

Ecology estimated that 30 all-cause deaths a year among adults in this population are associated with being exposed to fine particles in the air. Lung cancer death rates are also higher here than elsewhere in the state.

State researchers reviewed data between 2016 and 2020 from multiple agencies to identify the 16 communities, which are collectively home to 1.2 million people, or roughly 15.5 percent of the state’s population.

Varied sources

Vancouver’s pollutants of concern are both short-term and cumulative, driven by levels of particulate matter, ground-level ozone and nitrogen dioxide.

Wildfires are the source of high concentrations of particulate matter. These levels don’t go away but merely drop to moderate levels in the winter as many households burn wood for heat. About 414,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases come from vehicle exhaust pipes, particularly in areas along Interstate 5.

But most of Vancouver’s emissions can be linked to industrial activity.

Four Vancouver facilities — Frito Lay, Great Western Malt, SEH America and the River Road Generating Plant — emitted 782,861 metric tons in 2021, equivalent to emissions from 174,210 gas-powered vehicles driven for one year.

The natural gas-powered River Road Generating Plant alone produced 737,163 metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2021. Its owner, Clark Public Utilities, was automatically enrolled in Washington’s cap-and-invest program, a complex market-based tool that can be thought of as paying to pollute.

Clark Public Utilities said its future facility updates to the River Road Generating Plant will reduce its current output to 415,000 metric tons.

Statewide, 49 facilities that report greenhouse gas emissions are within or close to overburdened communities. Nearly half participate in the cap-and-invest program.

What’s next?

Ecology’s report was the first of many since the passage of Washington’s 2021 Climate Commitment Act and sets a baseline for future assessments. The agency must continue to assess air pollutants, greenhouse gases and subsequent health effects in overburdened communities every two years. The next report is slated by the end of 2025.

Ecology announced in October it would install 50 new air-quality monitors in the 16 communities identified in the report. The Legislature pledged $11.4 million for Ecology to develop a new grant program to fund pollution reduction projects in these areas.

“Data only tell part of the story,” the report states. “Additional approaches are needed for future reports to understand different ways air pollution impacts the health and well-being of individuals, families and the community.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer