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New Oregon program puts air monitors into communities’ hands

Families at the Jackson County Expo read the news on Sept. 9, 2020, the day after the Almeda Fire destroyed thousands of homes. The fire released smoke that was so thick, it topped the state's air monitors.
April Ehrlich
JPR News
Families at the Jackson County Expo read the news on Sept. 9, 2020, the day after the Almeda Fire destroyed thousands of homes. The fire released smoke that was so thick, it topped the state's air monitors.

As Oregon’s summer skies become increasingly filled with wildfire smoke, some communities will have an opportunity to see just how unhealthy their air is.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is launching a program that will give four communities air monitors for pollutants and identify potential solutions. The three-year pilot program, called Community Air Action Planning, can test the air for smoke particulates — whether from wood stoves or wildfires — as well as traffic pollution. They’ll measure meteorological data, like heat and wind direction, which could help regulators determine why pollution might gather in certain neighborhoods.

The program will work closely alongside community members to identify their air quality concerns, install monitors throughout the area, collect data, and compile it into a report. The report also will summarize narratives collected from residents, in part to find if there are specific areas that people avoid because of air pollution.

DEQ will select communities this summer based on a variety of socioeconomic, health and pollution indicators.

DEQ public engagement analyst Ryan Bellinson, who’s helping run the program, said it’s intended to empower communities and broaden DEQ’s work.

“DEQ will be supporting them in gaining agency and taking action for improving their air quality,” Bellinson said. “But they’ll also be helping us as a regulatory agency learn about how we can support overburdened communities in effective ways.”

Bellinson said he hopes to work with at least one community that’s heavily impacted by wildfire smoke, such as in Central or Southern Oregon. The program might also include a dense, urban community that’s particularly vulnerable to “black carbon,” which is soot from traffic and other fossil fuel pollution.

The three-year pilot program is funded by a $1 million federal grant, but Bellinson hopes to find additional funding to continue the program in future years.

Program staff will help community members identify where to install the monitors and how to get them serviced if they’re not working.

These monitors will likely collect data over a span of six months to a year, depending on what type of pollution community members are most concerned about. After that, the air program will help identify ways to mitigate pollution, like establishing clean-air shelters, distributing air filters, or finding ways to monitor other pollutants and toxins. Bellinson said the program has some money to help fund these solutions, and if that’s not enough, DEQ can help community members apply for grants or other funding sources.

“We want to work with the community so when they get the data at the end, they’ll be empowered to take action, whatever that might look like for them,” Bellinson said.

Three other agencies are partnering with DEQ on the program. Desert Research Institute, a Nevada-based nonprofit, will visualize the data collected from air monitors. The Portland-based nonprofit Neighbors For Clean Air will help DEQ staff build relationships with community members. Then, Portland State University will evaluate outcomes from the pilot program.

Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting

April Ehrlich is JPR content partner at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Prior to joining OPB, she was a regional reporter at Jefferson Public Radio where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.