Project aims to assess effects of pollution

Paonia High School science class students set up air quality meters on the roof of the school as part of a project to monitor oil and gas emissions.

One of the air-quality meters students are using in the monitoring project.

An air quality monitoring project being undertaken under the umbrella of a multi-million-dollar oil and gas study is involving Delta County communities, including science-minded students, in examining the impacts of potentially everything from car idling to ditch burning.

Low-cost, easy-to-use air pollution sensors developed by the University of Colorado Boulder are being deployed in the North Fork Valley region, in part to assess baseline air quality to better be able to later measure impacts of drilling if it becomes widespread in the region. Some will be stationed at permanent sites, and others moved around as research needs dictate.

The project is a part of a five-year, $12 million study funded by the National Science Foundation and led by CU-Boulder, with involvement from other universities and entities including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden. The study aims to find ways to maximize oil and gas development while minimizing environmental and health impacts, and specifically looks at concerns in areas such as air and water quality and the use of hydraulic fracturing.

One approach the project is using is involvement of citizen science as a means of gathering data and engaging the public. That’s where efforts such as the one-year air-quality monitoring project in Delta County come in.

“The community members and citizen scientists in the North Fork Valley know their environment in a way that we as outside researchers couldn’t possibly,” CU graduate student and project lead Ashley Collier said in a news release from the Western Slope Conservation Center, based in Delta County. “By considering their concerns and observations, we can ensure the project provides useful and relevant results. A year’s worth of data is a lot. If the students are also exploring the data in their classes, there is the possibility of them spotting an interesting trend that we might miss.”

The conservation center, which has been involved in local water quality monitoring since 2001, is partnering in the one-year effort. So are Paonia, Hotchkiss and Cedaredge high schools, which are developing their own air monitoring studies.

“I think that the education and citizen scientist part is probably the most exciting thing about this project,” said WSCC executive director Sarah Sauter.

Local students and schools don’t normally have access to universities to partner with, and this will give them a chance to participate in real science, she said.

Paonia High School science teacher Ben Graves sees the project as democratizing science by putting research in the hands of youth who understand local issues, see things each day and ask interesting questions about what should be studied.

During a recent brainstorming session, students came up with the idea of possibly examining idling cars and burning ditches as sources of pollution.

“I firmly believe that students learn science best when they’re able to engage in science as scientists — asking questions, getting data, analyzing results,” Graves said.

He said the lower-cost monitoring technology being implemented also excites him because it lets communities take control of their own monitoring, rather than relying on the minimal data coming from sources such as a single Environmental Protection Agency monitor in a town.

As communities such as the North Fork Valley consider the tradeoffs of oil and gas development, “I think that this technology allows communities to make informed decisions,” he said.

The air-monitoring project will shed little light on pollution from local oil and gas development because little drilling has occurred in the area. But local concern over Bureau of Land Management plans to lease tens of thousands of acres for oil and gas development — plans that are on hold for now — helped serve as the catalyst for the research.

A lot of that concern centered on what degree oil and gas development might foul the air.

“But you can’t answer the question unless you have the baseline” data, Sauter said.

Oogie McGuire raises rare Black Welsh Mountain sheep at her Desert Weyr farm in the Paonia area. She believes drilling is incompatible with the area’s agriculture and tourism economy and would harm what she believes to be a pristine environment.

“It will certainly help us if we can show the air quality right now is good,” said McGuire, who will have a monitor stationed on the farm.

She considers the research to be “an effort just to show why this is an area that needs to be completely off-limits to drilling.

“… There’s got to be places in this country where you just say no, and this area has to be one of them,” she said.

Another local activist group, Citizens for a Healthy Community, earlier this year announced plans to undertake its own air quality testing in the region by equipping residents with backpacks containing air-sampling devices. The project, also designed to establish pre-drilling baseline air conditions, was developed with the help of scientists from the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, which is based in Paonia and focuses in part on oil and gas health impacts.

Meanwhile, Colorado State University is leading a study of drilling-related air quality impacts in Garfield County, with funding support from both the county and the oil and gas industry.

“No one has done more than Western Colorado’s oil and gas industry to find out what’s in the air we all breathe,” David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said by e-mail. “That’s why we’re heavily involved in both the West Slope air study pioneered by Colorado State University and Garfield County’s robust air monitoring program.

“Our air quality improvement technologies will help the North Fork Valley safely produce some of the very propane and natural gas used every day in their communities. We’re excited to help them make this important energy contribution. After all, it’s propane and natural gas that sustain a modern, year-round living in western Colorado’s mountain communities that would otherwise be impossible.”

Graves said it is important for scientists not to put a value to their research processes, but just ask questions and collect data. Or as Sauter put it, “The importance of baseline (testing) is to let science tell the story.”

Said Graves, “So much air pollution is invisible and so these sensors allow us to make the invisible visible.”


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Excellent article about localism and Western Slope activism.  Such work and real-world experience is such a learning-teaching-doing collaboration for the students.  This is how civics and responsibility to a community should be taught.  Thank you Dennis Webb and the GJ Sentinel.

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