August 21, 2002 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

A report that classifies Union County's air as fourth worst in the state has drawn questions and concerns from the city


The Department of Environmental Quality has estimated that the city's air contains 10 times the desired level of formaldehyde, as well as carbon tetrachloride, benzene and other hazardous materials. La Grande City Manager Wes Hare is asking for funds to do full research into the air quality.

During a public hearing Tuesday, Greg Landy of DEQ's Portland office reviewed the agency's plan to write rules that would improve the air quality throughout the state.

"This is a public health problem," Landy said. "It runs the gamut from cancer, birth defects.… The issue is the concentration."

Landy showed a draft report with a map that rates the air quality of a number of cities, with Portland having the greatest problem. Medford and Salem are ranked Nos. 2 and 3, and La Grande is fourth.

The map was drawn using computer modeling and 1996 data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Landy said the department's priority is to work with large urban areas to improve air quality, although as funds become available smaller communities may get assistance in analyzing the air quality problems and developing a plan of improvement. At this time, there is only enough money for Portland to receive assistance.

Hare said he would like for the city to receive grant monies to monitor and study the county's air quality. He said he is especially concerned about the high levels of formaldehyde shown for the county.

"You're saying Union County has 10 times the benchmark level," he said. "I breathe this. I'd like to know if we have a serious problem."

Hare said that the city has "been aggressive" in reducing the number of wood stoves used for heating.

"We have stringent restrictions against backyard burning," he said. "We'd be inspired to do more if we had a better sense of what we were up against."

Landy said, "We'd love to do La Grande, but while it's not too expensive, it's not cheap."

A graph produced by DEQ shows that 56 percent of the county's formaldehyde pollution comes from a variety of sources, with only 6 percent coming from major industries.

DEQ has identified 12 pollutants that are higher than desired in Union County. Of the 12, 11 cause cancer and one, acrolein in motor vehicle exhaust, causes respiratory damage. Formaldehyde, the chemical of greatest concern, is a product of motor vehicle exhaust, manufacturing and forest fires.