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Pollution Spikes This Winter In Utah's Oil and Gas Country

Photo of haze over the Uintah Basin
KUER File Photo
Snow and the valley geography are key elements to the odd winter ozone problem in oil and gas country, including eastern Utah’s Uintah Basin shown here. Ozone pollution is typically associated with big cities in the summer.";

The same snow that’s helped wash away smog episodes along the Wasatch Front this winter has created a kind of pollution factory in the Uinta Basin. Conditions have led to more than two weeks of high-ozone days in Utah’s oil and gas country.

“It’s something to be concerned about,” said Bo Call, who oversees air-quality monitoring in the Utah Division of Air Quality. “The levels are way up there and people that are sensitive to ozone might be impacted.”

At the Ouray pollution monitor, ozone has been as high as 110 parts per billion – significantly above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health-based standard of 70 parts per billion for ozone pollution. Call’s team has counted 15 days so far this winter that pollution in the Uinta Basin has exceeded EPA’s standard.

The EPA has a complicated formula – averaging certain ozone measurements over three consecutive years – to determine what sort of cleanup action to require. But, Call said, no matter how you look at it, levels have been high enough throughout the Uinta Basin in recent years that they could trigger new, tougher emission reductions for oil and gas producers.

High ozone levels aren’t new in oil and gas country. For more than a decade, scientists have been studying strange winter ozone spikes in remote parts of the West that rival summertime ozone in big cities like Los Angeles.

The latest Utah data was included in a routine report Call gave last week at the Utah Air Quality Board.

Call pointed out that, just like Wasatch Front winter smog, geography and weather play a big role in the basin’s winter ozone problems. Ozone levels rise, he explained, when the sun shines on the snowy ground. Those conditions allow emissions from oil and gas operations to undergo a chemical reaction that results in ozone pollution.

Ozone pollution affects even healthy people and exacerbates existing conditions such as asthma. It harms the respiratory system by causing what’s commonly called “a sunburn on the lungs.”

“If they get some sunny days [in the basin] get some inversions going, then they could be adding to their already lengthy days that they’ve exceeded so far this year,” he said. “The only silver lining is it’s still cold and yucky enough outside that people are choosing not to be outside as they would when the weather gets nicer.”

Regulators have pressured oil and gas producers to upgrade their equipment and practices in recent years to help avoid an EPA crackdown on emissions. It won’t be clear for more than a year whether this year’s pollution record will result in new and tougher regulations in the basin.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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