Ozone hot spot suspects: oil, gas

Draft ozone readings this winter in Rio Blanco County put the county on track to be in violation of federal standards, the first time that will have happened in western Colorado.

The high ozone levels were detected at a monitor in Rangely and will trigger stricter air pollution controls and a mandate on the state to clean up the pollution, the conservation group WildEarth Guardians said Tuesday. The county’s wintertime ozone problem is believed is be related to oil and gas development in the Uinta Basin, centered just over the border in Utah.

Ozone is a key ingredient of smog and forms when air pollution from vehicles, smokestacks and oil and gas drilling react with sunlight. It can cause respiratory problems in sensitive populations such as children, the elderly, those with asthma and even active adults, and can cause premature death, WildEarth Guardians says.

A violation occurs when the three-year average of the fourth-highest annual ozone readings in an area, as measured over eight-hour intervals, exceeds 0.075 parts per million. WildEarth Guardians says Rangely’s average is now 0.077 ppm. It says a monitor in nearby Vernal, Utah, this year recorded ozone concentrations above the 0.075-ppm standard 22 times.

Gordon Pierce, technical services manager for Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division, said the county won’t officially be considered to be in violation until May 1, 2014, after this year’s results are certified. But there’s probably no reason to question those ozone readings, he said.

“It’s something we see, it’s something that’s not going to really change,” he said.

He added, “How it’s going to be handled is a little bit of a question at the moment.”

Ozone is more commonly a summertime problem in urban areas. But high wintertime readings also have been detected in rural Pinedale, Wyo., another area of gas development. Sunlight reflecting off snow is thought to contribute to the problem in geological basins that also are prone to wintertime temperature inversions that trap pollutants.

Exceeding the three-year standard means a county could become what’s called a non-attainment area where tighter pollution controls could be required, Pierce said.

He said the Environmental Protection Agency will begin with the assumption that the whole county should receive that designation, but it’s not necessary in the eastern part of the county where ozone levels are lower.

Alternatively, the EPA could say the problem is caused by Utah and exclude the county, but that’s not likely, Pierce said.

“We believe most of the issue is probably related to sources in Utah, but there’s going to be some local (pollution) contribution as well from the Rangely area,” he said.

Ozone monitoring sites within the basin in Utah have not yet recorded three-year averages above federal standards, but that’s because monitors that meet EPA quality-assurance requirements haven’t been in place long enough, Pierce said. He said Vernal has had an EPA-approved monitor in place for two years now, and this year’s top reading was high enough that Vernal is expected to exceed the three-year average next winter even if it’s a low-ozone year.

Pierce said the Air Quality Control Division would like to see Rio Blanco County tied in with the Uinta Basin as a non-attainment area. While that would create coordination issues, multistate areas exist in other parts of the country, he said.

Assuming such an area was created, “probably the first thing that would happen would be controls on oil and gas sources,” along with additional controls on the coal-fired Bonanza Power Plant near Vernal, he said.

Last year, a multiagency Uinta Basin study with financial support from the oil and gas industry said operations from that industry are the prime source there of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide, two key factors in ozone pollution. The Bonanza plant also was a significant source of nitrogen oxide.

Pierce said vehicle inspection, maintenance and testing requirements also could be imposed in the Uinta Basin, but that might not be effective in an area of relatively low population.

WildEarth Guardians notes that Pierce’s agency has estimated that oil and gas operations release nearly half of all volatile organic compounds in Colorado and nearly 20 percent of nitrogen oxides, and that smog levels are growing on the Front Range, where drilling also is increasing.

The Air Pollution Control Division is looking at implementing tighter oil and gas air pollution restrictions, largely due to ozone concerns, Pierce said.

Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians said in a news release that it’s unclear if the changes would be enough to remedy the state’s ozone problems, and the state also is considering rolling back permitting and reporting requirements.

“With the oil and gas industry continuing to take a tremendous toll on the air we breathe, we need to prioritize solutions that significantly reduce emissions, increase — not roll back — scrutiny of drilling practices, and, most importantly, ensure ozone violations do not happen in the first place,” he said.

Pierce said that when it comes to air pollution, Colorado “has had some of the tightest oil and gas controls in the nation for a number of years.”

The EPA recently instituted tighter national limits based largely on what Colorado already had in place.

“Now we’re looking at going beyond that,” he said.


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