Dirty air comes from fires, not industry

I have noticed that the air quality in the Rogue Valley has deteriorated. I counted no less than six smoke columns rising out of the industrial area around Sage Road and North Pacific Highway and wonder why they are allowed to continue to pump smoke into the air when the air quality is getting into the unhealthy zone. The same goes for burning in woodstoves, the orchards, fields and property. Isn't there an agency that is supposed to monitor this type of situation? Is their equipment not working?

— Lisa Lungsaburnin, Medford

We have to admit, Lisa, we did a momentary double take on your last name before we realized you were kidding. Nicely done.

We'll answer your question to the best of our ability. Essentially, industrial activity is allowed to continue unless very high levels of pollution are reached. The industry also has to be the one creating that air toxicity. Those companies aren't to blame for this summer's wildfires or winter's oft-seen inversion layers.

"Those (levels) have to be quite high," said Byron Peterson, natural resources specialist for Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. "Those really are for when the industry is the one causing the pollution. In a wildfire event, the industry isn't causing the pollution."

Those plumes you mentioned coming off of Sage Road are actually steam columns emitting from factory control equipment intended to cut back on emissions.

"These are very state-of-the-art control units and have actually reduced those emissions considerably," Peterson said.

Woodstoves are separate, with allowances given by Jackson County based on air-quality readings taken daily. Open-burn and barrel-burning permits are obtained through local fire agencies, and their distribution is based on sufficient air movement and quality. Open burning and barrel burning are prohibited during fire season inside the city limits of Medford, Jacksonville, Phoenix and Talent, and from November through February inside the county's Air Quality Maintenance Area. See www.co.jackson.or.us/page.asp?navid=2487 for information on the boundary.

There's a caveat to the allowances for orchards, however. Even during days where open burning is not allowed, orchards dealing with pests or disease on their crops still can burn the affected plants.

"There's an exemption for agricultural waste necessary for disease and pest control," said Jackson Baures, public health division manager for Jackson County.

As for DEQ's equipment, they assure us it's working. They update their air-quality readings hourly and post the results online at www.deq.state.or.us/aqi/index.aspx.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

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