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Scientists study ozone problem in rural Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Almost all of the air pollution in a rural corner of Utah comes from oil and gas drilling and a coal-fired power plant, leading scientists to believe those emissions are responsible for producing dangerous levels of ozone, a gas that is the main ingredient in smog.

Officials trying to learn the root cause of ozone formation held a news conference Tuesday in Vernal, about 125 miles east of Salt Lake City, to discuss preliminary findings of an industry-sponsored study.

Drillers are trying to correct the problem to avoid mandates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Uintah County Commissioner Michael McKee.

The EPA says ozone is bad for people, crops and trees. Doctors say it can cause respiratory and heart problems. Scientists say ozone is created by chemical reactions in sunlight from volatile organic compounds and nitrous oxides.

Oil and gas production releases more than 98 percent of the VOCs, according to research by NOAA, other federal agencies and academic researchers. The Bonanza Power Plant is the region's main source of nitrous oxides, researchers say.

Their preliminary 281-page report contains no recommendations for emissions controls, but industry officials already are trying to curb pollutants and contributed $2 million for the study, said Kathleen Sgamma, government-affairs director for Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based trade group for oil and gas producers.

Scientists need to continue studies to determine which emissions controls could be most effective in curbing ozone, said Brock LeBaron, deputy director of the Utah Division of Air Quality.

"We've got a good, cooperative framework for looking at this problem," LeBaron said in an interview.

The Uintah Basin has seen more than a dozen episodes of high ozone so far this year, the report says. The ozone readings can reach nearly twice the limit considered safe by the EPA and last for weeks at a time.

As the study got under way last winter, however, a scant snowpack left little ozone for scientists to measure. It did provide them with a baseline for a clean atmosphere.

Snow cover, which is back this winter, seems to amplify the sun's energy, which converts more industrial emissions into ozone, said Seth Lyman, an air quality specialist for Utah State University who helped edit the Uintah Basin Winter Ozone & Air Quality study.

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