Volume 105, Number 13 - March 27, 2008
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Ozone alerts alarm locals
In an area where heavy pollution was as unheard of as stoplights 10 years ago, ozone alerts have developed into an expected weekly event.
The Air Quality Division (AQD) of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued two more air quality advisories for ozone in Sublette County on Sunday and Monday this week, the fourth and fifth advisories in the county and state’s history, all of which have occurred in the past two months. The number might be dwarfed when compared to pollution in urban metropolises, but the advisories’ sudden consistency in being issued almost weekly has stirred concern among many, including AQD administrator Dave Finley.
Finley echoed his past surprise at the rising ozone levels, typically rare in rural areas or the wintertime. The agency’s studies suggest that the increased pollution results from unusual weather conditions trapping ozone in one location. These conditions include snow cover, so ozone levels will hopefully drop once the ground turns muddy again, Finley said.
“I’d hoped that we would be through with the kinds of weather conditions that give rise to these alerts (by now),” Finley said. “But they really are what they are, and as long as they continue, we’ll continue to issue ozone advisories. It’s the responsible thing to do.”
Dr. Tom Johnston, a retired physician who practiced in Pinedale for about 50 years, said he couldn’t predict how residents will feel the effects from the excessive ozone levels, which have risen above 100 ppb multiple times in February and March this year.
“I don’t think anybody really knows what the long-term impacts are going to be from ozone exposure,” Johnston said. But he could guarantee that people who smoke will struggle more with the pollution than nonsmokers.
“Of course the damage done to the lungs (by ozone) is fairly subtle, so it’s just another insult to pulmonary health.” Pressure is nevertheless high for operators on the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline gas fields, the greatest producers of the volatile organic compounds and Nitrous Oxide (NOx) emissions that combine to create ozone.
If Wyoming hopes to meet the new federal ozone standard of a maximum 75 parts per billion (ppb), operators will have to pursue cleaner field technology and consider slowing the pace of development, Finley said.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lowered the federal standard from 80 ppb to 75 last week out of concern for public health. Ozone can cause breathing problems like coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, especially among children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems.
The DEQ holds responsibility for enforcing the new standard, and Finley said the agency’s director has already asked energy industry members to give proposals on measures they could pursue to lower emissions in the short-term. Finley must also suggest how to adjust state regulations to lower ozone in the long-term.
The DEQ hopes to establish short-term solutions as soon as possible, and to produce better permanent regulations before January of 2009, Finley said, when the DEQ expects weather conditions will stoke ozone levels again.
Representatives of Shell, Ultra and Questar have repeatedly insisted that they can lower emissions after the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approves year-round drilling for 4,000 new wells on the anticline. With year-round drilling, the companies can obtain contracts for cleaner technology and install a full-field liquid gathering systems to replace hundreds of thousands of truck trips.
But Johnston has doubts if such measures would make any difference.
“This stuff (with ozone) has been going on for more than two years, and I haven’t seen any change,” Johnston said, referring to the first occasion in 2005 when the DEQ monitored ozone levels exceeding the legal limit. “They knew about it then and they didn’t do anything about it. I can’t see why they would change anything now.”
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