Asian Pollution May Harm Washington Air

Pollution from Asian power plants and smoke from burning Siberian forests may be adding to poor air quality in Washington state, scientists say.

SEATTLE — Pollution from Asian power plants and smoke from burning Siberian forests may be adding to poor air quality in Washington state, scientists say.

Most pollution here is produced locally, but some problems like mercury in lake fish or the haze that rings Mount Rainier could have Asian connections.

Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Washington's Bothell campus, is heading up an effort to search for international pollution and gauge how serious the problem is.

"Environmental issues are really now a global concern, there's no question about that," Jaffe said.

Jaffe and his team of researchers usually work using a cramped Beechcraft Duchess airplane. But they've recently received two state-of-the-art planes as part of the first concerted federal effort to decipher how air floating from Asia carries pollutants to America.

Federal scientists say the influx of bad air can exacerbate West Coast air-quality problems.

The added pollution could push parts of the country over clean-air thresholds, or erase gains made from costly efforts to cut local pollution, said Terry Keating, a senior scientist in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's office of air and radiation.

"If it takes millions of dollars of investment in the United States to get a small change in ozone and fine particles, and that same increment can be coming from overseas and may potentially grow in the future, then that's something that we're concerned about," he said.

The EPA has been seeking alliances with China to help cut air pollution there. In 2003 the EPA struck a deal to help Chinese officials monitor air-pollution levels and cut emissions.

More sensitive equipment to track the pollution and a growing Asian industry has created greater awareness lately that Asia is a source of U.S. air pollution, said Bill Brune, a Penn State professor who is helping to head up the NASA project.

"The concern is if it's business as usual, it's just going to get worse," Brune said.

Jaffe and his team use computer models to search for pollution and measure certain chemicals that are associated with industrial activity, such as mercury and carbon monoxide.

In 1997, on Cheeka Peak, near the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula, Jaffe started finding higher-than-expected levels of carbon monoxide and a chemical that helps create ozone when the winds were blowing from Asia.

Four years later, he discovered dust from massive Asian dust storms made up more than half the small-particulate pollution in Seattle during one week. In 2003, he determined ozone that had pushed Seattle-area levels above federal air-quality limits could be traced to Siberian forest fires.

A year later he and his team found mercury in the air around the summit of Mount Bachelor had originated in Asia, where coal burning is a major source of atmospheric mercury.

On Monday, a modified C-130 cargo plane from the National Center for Atmospheric Research landed at Paine Field in Everett north of Seattle. And in Hawaii a DC-8 jet from NASA was added to help their efforts.

Both planes will spend the next month buzzing over the Pacific Ocean, taking samples from plumes of pollution from Asia as part of a project spearheaded by NASA.

Source: Associated Press

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