St. Helen's cost: 'at least $1.5 billion'

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The Evergreen State is beginning to live up to its name again. Most of the volcanic ash in urban areas has at least been swept into piles, and rain has turned trees and shrubs from gray back to their normal color across much of Washington State. This has lifted spirits perceptibly.

But the improvement is cosmetic at best, as the costs of the two Mt. St. Helens eruptions this month begin to mount up. And with the very real possibility that the mountain has not ended its spectacular-yet-destructive displays, officials here are preparing for an even higher toll.

"The time for assessing the damage and looking ahead is here," Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray told a meeting of several hundred people in Yakima this week. "The financial burden is truly enormous. We're talking about at least a billion- and-a-half dollars."

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Much of the cost will come from losses to the state's annual $2.5 billion agricultural output. Governor Ray says this will be "no less than $313 million, " but others put the estimates much higher.

After surveying the eight eastern counties that are the state's major wheat producers, the Washington Association of Wheat Growers figures the dollar loss from wheat alone could be $473 million. The problem here, explains association president Monte Shaffer, is not damage to the wheat itself, but the abrasive volcanic ash which damages machinery and makes harvesting impossible.

It already is assumed that 40 percent of the annual alfalfa crop is lost. Just about ready for harvest before St. Helens erupted, it now lies crushed beneath a layer of ash amounting to hundreds of tons per acre.

"As you go from farm to farm, each one has a different problem," said state agriculture director Bob Mickelson.

For Nick Friend, who came here from the Netherlands 30 years ago and grows cut flowers, the loss of 35,000 peonies just before Memorial Day adds up to $8, 000. Standing in line at the disaster assistance center set up temporarily in the hobby room of the Yakim County fairgrounds, Mr. Friend worries about his 40 head of prize cattle. Their teeth may be damaged by abrasive ash in the hay.

For communities like Yakima, a city of 46,000 in the center of a lush agricultural valley, cleanup costs may run to $5 million. Ash clogged the sewage treatment plant here, and raw sewage was dumped into the Yakima River for a period. This has effected the quality of water used downstream by communities and for irrigation. The situation won't be fully corrected until treatment facilities are returned to normal in about six weeks.

Some 370,000 Washington residents were out of work at least temporarily after the initial May 18 blast, and in the vicinity of Mt. St. Helens nearly 200 homes and cabins were destroyed.

While total costs will not be known for some time, federal agencies have started to provide some direct assistance. The US Forest Service eased the terms of national forest timber sales in Oregon and Washington to help the stricken lumber industry, already hard hit by recession.

US Justice Department officials are here to see about reimbursing communities for the hundreds of public safety vehicles lost to engine damage caused by the volcanic ash fallout. Representatives from the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Agriculture, Small Business Administration, and other federal agencies are among those interviewing people who take a number and wait for help at the fairgrounds disaster assistance site.

Governor Ray has received assurances from President Carter and the state's congressional delegation that special federal allocations for disaster relief will be forthcoming. But there still is uncertainty among local officials about when help will arrive from Washington, D.C.

The President's disaster fund, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, "is virtually depleted," says one agency official. This is due to earlier disasters and the fact that Congress has yet to approve a supplemental appropriation requested even before Mt. St. Helens erupted.

While there is no doubt that Washington will receive substantial federal help , adds this official, uncertainty about congressional action "does hold up assistance."

Monitor staff correspondent David Salisbury, reporting on another potential problem associated with the St. Helens eruptions -- the possible health effects of the volcanic ash -- says that most knowledgeable authorities appear to believe the overall impact on public health will be slight.

"My own gut feeling is that this will not prove to be a major problem," said Dr. Jck Allard, director of the Washington State Medical Laboratory, which has just begun an investigation into possible long-term health effects of the Mt. St. Helens activity.

His feelings are shared by Dr. Thomas Martin, a respiratory expert at the University of Washington Medical School in Seattle.

"Studies that have been done suggest that large and long-term exposures [to this type of material] are required to cause major damage [to the lungs]," the specialist says.

But until there is more certainty about the effects of the ash, people with respiratory problems are being issued special dust masks and instructed to remain inside and keep their windows closed.

Experts believe that the ash eventually will agglomerate into larger particles that will not penetrate lungs. So, as long as the mountain does not stage a number of repeat performances, the health hazard will diminish relatively rapidly.

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