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Basin residents can't mask frustration as ash struggle goes on

As motorists cruise down Interstate 90 near Moses Lake, they pass a Columbia Basin landmark, the city's tall, neatly painted water tower.

Behind the tower is a new, but unwanted landmark from May 18, 1980, a three-acre pile of Mount St. Helens ash.

The ash pile, as deep as 16 feet in places, is part of a legacy that Columbia Basin residents have lived with for a year and may have to live with for centuries.

The gray, chalky powder blankets a region that stretches from Royal City to Ritzville and Othello to Ephrata, with Moses Lake and Warden right in the middle.

Vacant lots, dirt roads and paths still are covered with up to three inches of it.

There are places in downtown Moses Lake where ash remains piled on the sidewalks less than a block from city hall

And when the wind blows, Basin residents see miniature specters of the giant cloud that shrouded their area after the volcano erupted.

Geologists say that in some places the ash will be visible for centuries.

One of these is the scenic Potholes fishing. area northwest of Othello, a region of small lakes, sagebrush, cattails and rimrock.

The landscape looks as if a giant passed by with a flour sifter, leaving a light gray mantle on rocks, brush and open spots.

Some deposits have settled in nooks and crannies of this rimrock country, forming a crust that resists wind, rain and erosion.

"It's eerie fishing here now," said a fisherman at Soda Lake.

In town, getting rid of the ash has become a never-ending job.

"My menfolks still have to wear masks when they mow the lawn," said Mrs. Adolph Jeske of Warden.

Lois Coffelt, Othello, said she and her husband are replacing the red volcanic rock in their flower bed "because we can't get the ash out. It keeps working to the surface."

Replacing the dusty gravel is among the biggest costs and chores of the volcano cleanup. Adams County is spending between $2 million and $3 million to put new gravel on up to 1,200 miles of county roads. The federal government will pay up to $4 million for such work, county officials say.

Homeowners and farmers also had to scrape off driveways and haul out the old gravel and haul in new.

Dean Judd, Adams County commissioner, said it really hurt to lose the county's gravel stockpile, which he called the county's benchmark of wealth. "Ours are gone," he said, after decades of building them up.

The ash also has been hard on machinery, said Loren Thrush of the Small Business Administration, which has made $22.9 million in loans from its Moses Lake office, where 496 loans were processed.

Most of the money went to farmers for crop or equipment damage, he said.

Dick Prestwich of Dick's Auto repair in Othello said people still are replacing alternators, starters, clutches and wheel bearings as the ash works its way into them and grinds up moving parts.

Gene Johnson, Othello public works superintendent, said, one legacy that could haunt Othello is the damage the fine dust has done to the city's water pumps.

"We were changing filters daily the first few weeks following the blow, but even now after a heavy wind the equipment inside the pump houses is coated with dust."

He fears the ash will grind up pump bearings, which cost $1,000 each to replace. With several pumps and two bearings in each, the ash could cost the city thousands of dollars over an extended period, Johnson said.

Potters Drug Store in Othello continues to sell masks to keep people from breathing the ash, but not as many as they did the first few days after the eruptions when the firm sold 8,000, said store manager Scott 'Potter.

Pharmacist Alex Wong said he still sells masks and goggles, especially to farm workers who complain of the dust in the fields.

"They also complain of skin irritations," he said.

Some people have used the volcano to their advantage. Carol Snelling of Warden makes ceramic plates and other objects from Mount St. Helens ash at Jackie Country Creations on Ash Street in Warden.

"She is selling them as fast as she can make them all over the country," said Jackie Hooley, who displayed a water pitcher and small plate that cost $17.50.

Betty Jenkins, owner of an insurance business in Othello, said most of the claims she handled were for roof damage, not vehicle damage.

The weight of the ash damaged some roofs and it also worked into asphalt roofing materials, deteriorating them, she said. Damage claims ran as high as $1,000, she said.

Most of the material damage can be repaired, but the ash also is grinding up the morale of the townspeople, says Martha Maples, a waitress at the Porterhouse Restaurant.

"The days when the wind blows and the kids track ash into the house are the days when I want to pack up and leave."