Wildfire smoke brought unprecedented levels of air pollution

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Wildfire smoke brought unprecedented levels of air pollution

Postby Wilberforce » Fri Sep 08, 2017 4:46 pm

Wildfire smoke brought unprecedented levels of air pollution to Eugene area last weekend, new data confirm

By Elon Glucklich
The Register-Guard
11:46 a.m., Sept. 8, 2017

If this week’s wildfire smoke left residents mistaking Lane County for another planet, that may be because the pollution reached levels unmatched in recent county history, new data show.

Local air quality readings Sunday through Tuesday found air pollution levels not seen since before 1980, when the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency began measuring the effects of fine particulate smoke pollution.

“I expect there weren’t higher days even in the late 1970s,” LRAPA Director Merlyn Hough said Friday. To find a worse stretch of air pollution in Lane County history, “I’d expect you’d have to go back to the ... early 1970s, maybe the late 60s.”

LRAPA since 1980 has tracked concentrations of fine particulate matter — microscopic airborne pollutants from factories, woodstoves and fires — in the Eugene area. The agency reads particulate levels with a device called a nephelometer, which gauges the dimming effect of pollution on sunlight. Those readings yield a numerical score known as a “beta scatter” amount, with higher ratings indicating greater pollution.

Sunday in Eugene, LRAPA’s 24-hour average beta scatter score was 17.9, the highest ever recorded. The only other time readings approached that level was on Dec. 15, 1985, when readings reached 17.3.

The pollution back in the 1980s invariably occurred in winter, caused by abundant use of inefficient woodstoves.

Eugene recorded average beta scatter scores of 15.5 on Monday and Tuesday. Except for Sunday’s 17.9, those were the highest readings since Dec. 18, 1985.

LRAPA’s monitoring station in Springfield recorded a 16.4 rating on Sunday, the highest since at least 1985, though data hasn’t been compiled every day there.

Oakridge on Monday recorded a 15.2 rating, its highest since LRAPA began taking intermittent readings in 1989.

Finding worse Eugene air quality than the recent spate of wildfire-choked skies likely means going back to before federal crackdowns on large industrial polluters more than 40 years ago.

Before amendments to the federal Clean Air Act regulated factory emissions in the 1970s, Lane County sawmills disposed of wood waste in tall cone-shaped structures known as wigwam burners, which sent huge plumes of polluted smoke and ash into the sky. They were among the region’s biggest polluters when LRAPA was founded in 1968, Hough said.

Their use declined as the 1970s wore on and Oregon imposed its own regulations to comply with the Clean Air Act. But while industrial polluters were coming under regulatory pressure, rising electrical and natural gas costs steered Lane County residents toward inexpensive wood stoves as a main heating source, Hough said.

Wood stove use previously peaked in the 1940s before bottoming out around 1970, he said. But their usage spiked again as the country veered toward an energy crisis in the middle of the decade.

Their sullying of the air nearly matched the intense industrial pollution of the previous decade, Hough said.

Unlike today, Lane County’s worst air quality conditions then fell between December and February, during the coldest days of the year when wood stoves burned across the region.

“By then it was clear many of the gains we’d achieved through industrial and other controls at the time were being offset by increasing use of wood stoves,” Hough said.

The Oregon Legislature started a wood stove certification program in 1983 to encourage scrapping old stoves and installing cleaner-burning new ones. Many cities and counties began implementing green, yellow and red day “alerts,” and restricting wood burning on red days.

“If you look back now, you wonder why it took a few years to figure it out,” Hough said.

But state and local governments did, and by the late 1980s the air was much cleaner and beta scatter ratings were on a steep decline.

After recording 28 days between 1985 and 1989 in Eugene with a 24-hour beta scatter reading of 10 or more — reflecting extremely unhealthy air — LRAPA didn’t record a comparable day for nearly 28 years — a streak broken Sunday.

Follow Elon on Twitter @EGlucklich . Email elon.glucklich@registerguard.com .

http://registerguard.com/rg/news/local/ ... /story.csp
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