Garfield seeks to pinpoint air pollution sources

Garfield County plans to launch a study to determine what portions of its air pollutants are attributable to oil and gas development, traffic and other sources.

The research would come in response not to a problem, but to a positive trend. The county’s air quality has been improving over the last decade, but public health experts up to now have only been able to speculate as to why.

The county long has been conducting a robust program to monitor air quality, largely in response to oil and gas development occurring locally. County officials say monitoring results show the air is clean and getting cleaner. Some of that could be a result of the slowdown in drilling over the last decade, or due to tightened state air-pollution rules that have better controlled pollution even as the county’s overall active well count has grown. The reduction also could be thanks to cleaner-burning vehicles on the roads in a county bisected by Interstate 70.

In a work session on Wednesday, county commissioners supported the proposal by its public health staff to spend $75,000 on a source apportionment study aimed at pinpointing where pollutants known as volatile organic compounds come from. The commissioners would have to formally approve the expenditure before it could go forward.

Some volatile organic compounds contribute to ozone formation and some, such as benzene, are toxic in and of themselves. They originate not just from human sources but naturally, from vegetation.

The county would pay Colorado State University’s Atmospheric Science Department to conduct the study. CSU proposes approaches including statistical analysis using a method called positive matrix factorization.

“PMF analyzes correlations and temporal variability in individual VOC concentrations to determine groups of VOCs that derive from specific source ‘factors,’” CSU says in a proposal.

The county also paid $1 million toward a nearly $1.8 million CSU study, also funded by contributions from oil and gas companies, that measured emissions from drilling and oil and gas well completions at some pads in the county — some of the first such research done nationally.

Garfield commissioners Tom Jankovsky and Mike Samson both questioned Wednesday whether the county got its money’s worth from that study, leaving them uncomfortable with spending more on another one.

“I think it did answer some bigger-picture questions,” Morgan Hill, an environmental health specialist for the county, told the commissioners.

She noted that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also will be using the data from that study and a second one on the Front Range to do a health-risk study related to oil and gas emissions.

“Really that (CSU) study helped inform a lot larger picture. I think your contribution did lead to an increased understanding of emissions from oil and gas,” Hill said.

She said its results were just hard to understand because they were so technical, and the new study shouldn’t be so technical.

Commissioner John Martin spoke strongly in support of the pollution source research.

“We need to know what we’re producing, where it’s coming from,” he said.

Martin, who often speaks of how clean the county’s air is, said the study will provide knowledge about what can be done to further reduce VOCs.

“I’m really in support of getting the information and sharing it with not only our citizens but the rest of the nation, saying, ‘You can do better, too,’ ” he said.


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