Clean air

The Tesoro Anacortes (pictured) and Shell Puget Sound refineries on March Point are among the largest of about 450 businesses regulated by the Northwest Clean Air Agency.

Before the state established laws to protect air quality, smoke and ash billowed from industrial facilities, including some in Skagit County. 

The Northwest Clean Air Agency, which enforces air quality regulations in Skagit, Whatcom and Island counties, is celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the state's Clean Air Act.

"Before then things were spewing wood dust, smoke," agency spokesman Seth Preston said.

The Clean Air Act made it illegal to knowingly pollute air in the state during a time when timber, cement and other industries were booming, including in Skagit County.

The idea was to reduce dust, smoke and chemical emissions from wood mills, cement plants and other industries in order to protect the public's health, the environment and the region's natural wonders.

When signed into law March 21, 1967, the act stated:

"It is hereby declared to be the public policy of the state to ... protect human health and safety, and, to the greatest degree practicable, prevent injury to plant and animal life ... promote the economic and social development of the state and facilitate the enjoyment of the natural attractions of the state."

Soon after the act went into effect, Whatcom and Skagit counties formed a regional agency, originally called the Northwest Air Pollution Authority, to enforce the new laws.

The agency's first board meeting was Sept. 14, 1967, according to the agency's meeting minutes.

Air pollution from Lone Star Cement Company of Concrete, Mt. Baker Plywood Company of Bellingham and Intalco Aluminum of Ferndale were among the first issues the air agency's board discussed in late 1967. 

The plywood company was of particular interest, with several residents coming to the air agency's Dec. 6, 1967, meeting at the Skagit County Courthouse to make statements and share photographs of porches, trees and fruit in their neighborhood covered in dust, according to the meeting minutes.

Over time the air agency came to enforce federal, state and local air quality regulations in Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties, and is today known as the Northwest Clean Air Agency.

The agency regulates about 450 businesses, from the region's four oil refineries to coffee roasters, crematoriums and wastewater treatment plants, Preston said.

The agency also regulates smoke from fireplaces, wood stoves, outdoor and agricultural burning, and how asbestos — a group of minerals that are dangerous to breathe — is handled when found in building materials.

Air agency Executive Director Mark Buford said air regulations and industry cooperation make it possible to have a healthy environment and good jobs in the area.

"Skagit County is one of the most beautiful places in the entire world. And we make things right here," Buford said. "We make boats in Anacortes. We make lumber for our houses. We make fuel for the entire region. And we have some of the cleanest air in the country right here. That doesn’t just happen. That’s the result of a lot of care by a lot of people."

The Northwest Clean Air Agency is one of seven regional clean air agencies in the state that enforce the Clean Air Act and other air quality regulations.

Officials and industry leaders in Skagit County serve on the Northwest Clean Air Agency's board of directors and on its advisory council, which provides the agency with input on local pollution issues.

Working with industry

Air agency staff and industry representatives in Skagit County said the Northwest Clean Air Agency's success is in large part due to its positive relationships with major area industries, including the oil refineries and agriculture. 

Rudy Allen, owner of Ag Tech Services and a member of the Northwest Clean Air Agency's advisory council, said the agency helps balance the needs of industry and the environment.

He said his first experience with the air agency involved discussing field burning, which helps farmers prepare the soil for a new crop and rid it of potential disease-causing bacteria.

"That's really beneficial agronomically, but it creates a lot of smoke," Allen said.

He said Northwest Clean Air Agency staff taught him that doing the burns a specific way and at a particular time of year can help limit the air pollution it creates.

Mount Vernon City Councilman Joe Lindquist, chair of the Northwest Clean Air Agency's board of directors, said it's important for the agency to work with area industries.

"Northwest Clean Air Agency is a unique jurisdiction in that there are four oil refineries that are covered by the jurisdiction, so that presents some unique challenges ... Their ability to work with those industries and not take on an adversarial role is really important because we need the jobs also," he said.

The Tesoro Anacortes and Shell Puget Sound refineries at March Point near Anacortes together employ hundreds of full-time staff as well as hundreds of contractors.

Tesoro refinery environmental engineer Rebecca Spurling, who serves on the air agency's advisory council, said the refinery and the air agency have developed a mutual respect for one another.

"No one is perfect and no company is perfect. However, Tesoro is committed to continuous improvement, and I personally am also committed to improvement," Spurling said. "I think that is something that (Northwest Clean Air Agency) sees in our company." 

She said between 2002 and 2015, Tesoro reduced emissions at the refinery by about 65 percent. The majority of the reduction was due to the equipment that releases the white steam cloud often visible above the refinery.

The equipment, called a scrubber, pulls sand-like particles and chemicals such as sulfur dioxide out before the remaining gas, which is primarily water vapor, is released, Spurling said. The scrubber was installed in 2005 to meet new regulations enforced by the Northwest Clean Air Agency.

A job not finished

While much has changed for state and regional air quality during the past 50 years, protecting the region's clean air remains important.

Skagit County Environmental Health Specialist Polly Dubbel, who is on the Northwest Clean Air Agency advisory council, said Skagit County tends to have good air quality because it remains largely rural, has good air circulation, and has been regulated under the Clean Air Act since 1967.

"We've come a long way since then and have cleaned up our air a lot because the biggest industrial emitters now are under a lot of requirements," Dubbel said.

She said the Northwest Clean Air Agency's work is imperative to maintaining the area's clean air. Clean air is important because pollution such as wood smoke or diesel emissions can impact community members with lung and heart conditions, from asthma to cardiovascular disease. 

"Air quality can have an immediate impact ... It can send more people to the ER, it can keep kids home from school," Dubbel said.

Lindquist also said it's important to continue enforcing Clean Air Act regulations to ensure the region's air remains clean.

"We don't want to take a step backwards," he said.

Dubbel and the Northwest Clean Air Agency's Buford said in addition to businesses that are regulated, community members also play a role in protecting air quality.

It's important to be aware of burn bans, for example, because burning while the air is stagnant can create dangerous conditions for those who are sensitive to air pollution.

Knowing the rules about building demolition is also important in order to prevent releases of asbestos, which can damage the lungs and cause cancer. Asbestos is found in many old building materials.

For more information and tips for protecting air quality, visit, nwcleanairwa.gov.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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