What's big and hot and needs a really, really big catalytic converter?

| 12/7/2004

With all the things truckers are forced to do to control emissions from their trucks, you might think they were the biggest polluters in the world.

Well, in Washington state, that’s not the case. In fact, it’s far from even being close.

The No. 1 polluter there isn’t a truck, a factory, a power plant, a refinery or a steel mill.

It’s a volcano.

According to figures from the state’s Department of Ecology and the U.S. Geological Survey, Mount St. Helens is pumping out more sulfur dioxide than any of those other sources.

A geologist at the volcano says that since the beginning of its 2004 eruption, it has spewed between 50 and 250 tons of the nasty chemical a day.

By comparison, the largest commercial producer of the same substance – the TransAlta power generation station – is currently listed by the Department of Ecology at 52 tons per day. The Associated Press reported that since a series of upgrades demanded by regulators, the station’s actual output is about 27 tons per day – about 10 percent of the volcano’s maximum output of sulfur dioxide.

The portion caused by vehicles – not just trucks, but all on-the-road sources of sulfur dioxide – runs about 5,700 tons a year, or about 16 tons a day, roughly 6 percent of the volcano’s maximum output.

The problem is you can improve an exhaust system, add filters to a factory, somehow reduce emissions in about anything – except a large, active and very, very hot volcano.

“You can’t put a cork in it,” Greg Nothstein of the Washington Energy Policy Office told The AP.

Sulfur dioxide is a particularly nasty substance. According to state officials, its effects can range from simply irritating the respiratory system to impairing the respiratory system’s defenses against bacteria. It can cause chronic coughing, difficult breathing and episodes of bronchitis so serious they can require hospitalization. Children, senior citizens, people who have lung disease and asthmatics are especially hard hit.

Mount St. Helens is not a big emitter of other major pollutants – for example, greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide.

In that area, “It’s pretty small compared to all the man-made sources,” Nothstein told Land Line. “It doesn’t emit a lot of greenhouse gases, it’s probably just a couple of percent of our state total.”

And although it’s a big contributor of sulfur dioxide now, in the long run, it will likely not be.

“It’s a very intermittent source,” Nothstein said. “It was a pretty quiet volcano until just a few months ago.”

– By Mark H. Reddig, associate editor