Beneath Our Endless Skies, Wyoming Has Air Pollution Troubles | American Lung Association

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Beneath Our Endless Skies, Wyoming Has Air Pollution Troubles

(December 11, 2014)

Wyoming evokes images of wide-open skies and wild landscapes, not air pollution and smog.  Yet, several parts of Wyoming are plagued by ozone pollution from a proliferation of oil and gas operations across the state.  In fact, ozone pollution has been such a problem over the past several years that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies the Upper Green River Basin (UGRB) – including Sublette County and portions of Lincoln and Sweetwater Counties – as a “nonattainment area” because winter ozone pollution in the area has exceeded the federal limit. 

Ozone is such a pervasive risk to human health that the EPA is required to establish official limits, called National Ambient Air Quality Standards, on the level of ozone that can be in the nation’s air. The Clean Air Act requires that states must clean up the ozone in their communities to meet that standard.  The unhealthy ozone levels in the UGRB have, for the past several years, led to failing grades in the American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report.  In fact, the Wyoming Department of Health has documented an increase in clinic visits for adverse respiratory-related effects on particularly smoggy days in Sublette County.

The ozone pollution in the UGRB results from a complex reaction between emissions of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides from oil and gas operations and the right mix of weather conditions, including snow cover, sunlight, and inversions.  Oil and gas development is the largest source of ozone-forming pollutants in the UGRB’s Sublette, Lincoln and Sweetwater counties.

To reduce ozone air pollution, the American Lung Association supports stringent controls to reduce the emissions of hydrocarbon compounds and nitrogen oxides that help create ozone.  The State of Wyoming is moving in the right direction towards reducing harmful ozone by developing more protective regulations for existing oil and gas operations.  Just this week, the Wyoming Air Quality Advisory Board approved proposed regulations that, if passed by the Wyoming Environmental Quality Council next year, will require oil and gas operators to adopt sensible, cost-effective measures such as regular leak detection inspections on existing well sites and compressor stations to reduce regional air pollution. 

We are very pleased to see the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality make a serious attempt to better protect local citizens through the proposed rules.  But if the rules are going to have the impact needed to clean up the air and fully protect human health, they need further strengthening.  The proposal should be strengthened by extending the pollution reduction and leak inspection requirements to a more inclusive set of oil and gas emission sources and by regulating additional sources that cumulatively account for a large percentage of pollution.  

In a related development, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced that it plans to strengthen the national air quality standard for ozone, as the federal Clean Air Act requires it to do, because the current standard of 75 parts per billion (ppb) does not adequately protect public health. Once finalized, the updated ozone standard may result in additional ozone nonattainment designations for Wyoming.  Every Wyoming county except Teton reported some oil and gas production in 2014, but the necessary air quality public health protections needed around this development do not exist statewide.  Now is the time for the sort of cost effective, common sense air protections developed in Pinedale to be applied on a statewide basis.  All residents of Wyoming deserve equal access to healthy, clean air.

Your voices are needed to ensure a final rule that best protects public health.  To learn more about the issue and how you can help, contact Ronni Flannery, Healthy Air Director, at 406-214-5700 or rflannery@lungmtpacific.org

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