Winter pollution rising in Colorado
The Denver Post
Ozone pollution ” considered a summer problem ” is being detected across the West this winter, raising questions about the program to monitor and cut the pollutant.
First detected in February 2005 near the oil and gas fields of Pinedale, Wyo., elevated winter ozone is now being found in New Mexico and Utah, according to state data, and could eventually be found in Colorado.
“Now that we know to look for it, I think we’ll find high levels of winter ozone across the West and the world,” said Russell Schnell, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist.
Schnell’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory in Boulder is probing how ozone ” a corrosive gas linked to respiratory problems ” is created in winter.
“It is a sign of the rapidly industrializing West,” said Vickie Patton, air programs manager for the Environmental Defense Fund. “We are seeing a hallmark Western resource ” healthy, clean air ” vanish.”
There have been no elevated readings in Colorado, but Schnell said the monitors may be too far from or too high above oil and gas operations to detect the ozone.
The findings are of concern to the oil and gas industry ” a prime source of pollutants ” and the state and federal officials responsible for curbing those emissions.
“This is not a well-understood phenomenon, and we still don’t have good predictors of when it’s going to happen,” said David Finley, administrator of the Wyoming Division of Air Quality.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency is drafting a new ozone- sampling plan that “may require more monitors and in some areas year- round testing,” said agency spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn.
Still, the oil and gas industry is already moving to cut emissions, and in the Pinedale area, more than $100 million has been invested to cut emissions, according to a NOAA estimate.
“Anything that may be a health issue we take very seriously,” said Paul Matheny, Rocky Mountain region vice president at Questar Gas Co., a major operator in Pinedale.
Air-quality officials say they are still uncertain of all the steps that need to be taken. “This really caught us off guard, and it raises a ton of questions,” said Mary Uhl, chief of the New Mexico Air Quality Bureau.
Ozone readings above the federal health standard of 75 parts per billion over eight hours were recorded on three days last month around Farmington, N.M. “We didn’t think that we were like Pinedale, but maybe we are,” Uhl said.
Ozone is an urban, summer pollutant, created when volatile organic chemicals, such as auto tailpipe exhaust, and nitrogen oxides, from sources such as smokestacks, mix with sunlight on warm, windless days.
But now it is occurring in winter, and researchers think that falling temperatures ” to a low of minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit ” combine with low winds, clear nights and snow cover to create a temperature inversion over Pinedale. The warm air above traps cold air and and pollutants at ground level.
“It is as if you mixed spices for a cake in a bowl,” Schnell said. “You might smell the spices faintly, but if you put a cover on the bowl and removed it later, you’d really smell them.”
When the sun comes up, its ultraviolet rays bake the pollutants, which are further cooked as some rays bounce off the white snow and back into air.
Ozone levels soared, rising to 140 parts per billion just after noon from 30 parts per billion at dawn.
“Any place you find the right ingredients ” Canada, Siberia, Kazakhstan, China ” you will probably find winter ozone,” Schnell said.
The Wyoming Air Quality Division is continuing the research this winter, including an air-toxins risk assessment for the residents of Pinedale.
Since the initial findings were published in January in the journal Nature GeoScience, there have been more incidents. Elevated ozone levels have been detected in eastern Wyoming in the Thunder Basin, where there is no oil and gas drilling, Schnell said.
But there are coal mines and the ozone may be linked to methane and the diesel fumes from large earth-moving machines, Schnell said.
In New Mexico some of the area was not snow-covered but was bare, desert land that also can reflect sun.
Elevated ozone ” though below the health standard ” was detected in February in Logan, Utah, a predominantly farming community and home of Utah State University.
“There was a lot of snow cover,” said David McNeill, a Utah Air Quality Division program manager. “But we aren’t sure what else was at work.”
Colorado this year adopted new rules to curb oil- and gas-field emissions, said Mike Silverstein, deputy director of the state Division of Air Quality. “Hopefully, this will keep us ahead of the curve” of winter ozone, he said.
But Schnell said: “Any place where you have oil and gas drilling in a basin with snow cover, chances are you’ve got ozone.”
Mark Jaffe: 303-954-1912 or firstname.lastname@example.org