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Health board seeks consensus on closing events over air quality

Columbia Basin Herald - 9/14/2018

Sept. 14--Print Article

EPHRATA -- Officials with the Grant County Health District are seeking a county-wide consensus when dealing with hazardous air quality during large public events, such as the Grant County Fair or events at Live Nation.

At a regular meeting on Wednesday of the district's board of directors, which includes not only health district officials but county commissioners and representatives from many of the county's cities, the board discussed how best to come to agreement and which standards to use.

"What should we do if the air gets hazardous?" asked County Health Officer Alexander Brzezny. "If it's hazardous, we should come to a consensus, and the event should be canceled."

"It's going to happen one of these days. We've been lucky so far," Brzezny added.

According to Theresa Adkinson, health district administrator, most of the county's cities have decided to use the Washington Department of Ecology's air quality standards, in which an air quality index of 151 or more means the air is unhealthy for everyone.

Summer air quality in the state has been badly affected by summer wildfires in the last few year, which have put a lot of fine particulate matter in the air, making breathing difficult for some. Cities have closed pools and school districts have restricted or canceled practice and games because the air quality index has pushed past 150.

While the poor air quality threatened this year's Grant County Fair, it was never bad enough on fair days to prompt a conversation about closure.

"Two years ago, the air quality was worse than it is now, and it was suggested to Live Nation to cancel (an event at the Gorge)," said Commissioner Tom Taylor. "They said it would never happen."

Adkinson said that in previous conversations the district has had with Live Nation, which runs The Gorge, they have said they would need have a written order from the health officer before they closed.

Taylor, however, wanted to know -- in the event air quality went well past unhealthy into hazardous, does the county health officer have the power to shut a private event down?

"Yes, I believe so," Brzezny said. "If there's an immediate health hazard."

"It is the obligation and duty of the health officer to notify the public and take immediate action," he added.

However, Brzezny said the issue was enforcement.

"There might be a time you issue a closure and they don't do it," he said.

This is why it is better for all involved to come to an agreement beforehand as to what situations would prompt closure, Brzezny said, so that everyone was invested in making sure a closure, if needed, would work.

Brzezny also noted that the sheriff and the county commissioners are elected, while the county health officer -- whatever statutory powers he may have under state law and county ordinance -- is only an appointed position.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at countygvt@columbiabasinherald.com.

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