Air pollution expert: Ozone not yet a threat in Yampa Valley | SteamboatToday.com

Air pollution expert: Ozone not yet a threat in Yampa Valley

State officials speak about air, water quality issues related to energy exploration

What is ozone pollution?

The federal Environmental Protection Agency says ozone is a chemical that forms when nitrogen oxides react with volatile organic compounds and sunlight to form a compound that can inhibit breathing in humans. Ozone also is a significant component of the smog that can affect mountain views in the American West.

— An air pollution expert with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment told a Steamboat audience Tuesday night that he doesn't think the Yampa Valley currently is at risk for the kind of ozone pollution seen in northeast Utah's Uintah Basin and the Pinedale, Wyo., area.

"We don't have the potential for winter ozone in Routt County yet," Gordon Pierce said. "It's one we'll keep an eye on, but we don't see that Routt County has the potential at the present time."

Pierce is the technical services program manager for the Air Pollution Control Division of the Department of Health.

Pierce and colleague Kent Kuster, oil and gas liaison for the Department of Health's Division of Environmental Health and Sustainability, spoke to the Routt County Board of Commissioners and more than 50 members of the public about the role the agency plays in consulting with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission about air and water quality issues related to energy exploration.

Much of the Denver area and the northern Front Range are not meeting federal ozone standards, Pierce said. And the Uintah Basin and Pinedale Anticline are examples of regions where energy exploration is likely contributing to noticeable ozone pollution. However, the topography of the Yampa Valley does not lead to the strong temperature inversion experienced in Uintah, for example, Pierce said.

Utah is contending with tightening federal restrictions on emissions from oil and gas wells thought to be contributing to high ozone levels in the Uintah Basin, just across the Colorado line from Moffat County.

"The Uintah Basin is experiencing a new surge of oil and gas production with energy development accounting for a large portion of the Basin's economy," according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality in a recent explanatory paper. "Concerns about poor air quality have recently begun to limit this growth through the federal National Environmental Protection Act … and the restriction it has on lease sales."

Pierce said ozone typically is thought of as a problem that arises in the heat of summer, but in the Mountain West, there are instances of winter ozone problems when the reflectance of snow cover increases the effect of sunlight on ozone protection.

"Last winter, the Uintah Basin had some of the highest levels of ozone in the country because of deep temperature inversions," Pierce said. "You need snow cover and the doubling of light. It's a photochemical pollutant. And you need a lot of volatile organic compounds. There are not enough in Routt County."

Kuster said oil storage tanks have the potential to give off volatile organic compounds, but coal-fired power plants, for example, emit more significant amounts of volatile organic compounds.

Still, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming are collaborating in a three-state study to learn more about the formation of ozone in oil and gas development areas.

"The goal is to reduce redundancy and increase consistency among agencies," Pierce said.

To that end, the Air Quality Control Division has installed an ozone testing and meteorological site on Lay Peak near Maybell, west of Craig.

Other agencies have a portable ozone sampler on Ripple Creek Pass in the Flat Tops and ozone and nitrogen oxide detection instruments in Cowdrey, north of Walden.

Pierce said one thing that could change the outlook for meeting federal ozone standards is if the EPA in 2014 went forward with long-contemplated stricter standards. The Obama administration halted the past attempt by the EPA to do just that, he said.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com