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EPA Refuses To Change Stance On Uintah Basin

Drilling in the basin declined during last winter's decrease in oil prices.

The Uintah Basin has gained a reputation in recent years for its troubles in dealing with its own air quality. Western environmentalist groups have been attempting to get the Environmental Protection Agency to designate the region as being non-compliant with federal air quality standards. Earlier this month, a federal appeals court upheld the EPA’s decision not to give the region such a label. The ruling frustrated attempts by environmental advocacy groups who had submitted a petition for the federal agency to change its stance.

Had the EPA declared the Uintah Basin in violation of air quality law, the state of Utah would have had to change its strategy for dealing with air pollution. Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians said that the designation would have got the ball rolling in terms of air clean-up.

“The existence of unhealthy air is continuing to persist. The important thing with a non-attainment designation is that it imposes mandatory clean-up requirements, sets deadlines, and sets standards that states and the feds have to meet to bring a region into compliance with federal air quality standards,” he said. “Absent that dirty air designation there’s nothing that’s truly incentivizing the regulators to take the issue seriously and to meet the challenge head-on and restore clean healthy air to the Uintah Basin.”

The consensus among researchers concerning the cause of the region’s poor air quality points to practices by the large oil and gas industry in Uintah. This may explain why ozone levels in this rural region rival that of large cities, such as Houston and Los Angeles. Seth Lyman, a scientist with Utah State University, said that the area’s unique circumstances play a large role in the intensity of local ozone.

“A large part of the solution to the problem will be with changes to the oil and gas industry. Our ozone is not different than Salt Lake City summertime ozone but in another way it is different,” he said. “The chemistry is quite a bit different, the sources of those pollutants are of course different, also, the circumstances are different. We see highest ozone at the lowest elevation in the basin because the Uintah Basin is a big bowl. Another key finding is that it’s really episodic. When it’s clean, it’s really clean; when the ozone forms, then it forms in a hurry.”

Ozone can contribute to a large number of health problems, such as chest pain and throat irritation. Conditions such as bronchitis can be worsened through ozone exposure. Tim Wagner, of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said that air problems in the Uintah Basin are serious enough to have become a public health issue.

“Even moderate levels of ozone can cause pretty significant respiratory irritation,” he said. “In more serious levels, it can actually result in serious respiratory illnesses like asthma and even, in worse case scenarios, inflict serious health consequences on those that are most vulnerable, like children with asthma and the elderly, and actually cause premature death. It really, truly is a health issue. That should be first in the minds of everybody.”

While a non-compliance designation would require the state to change the way it deals with the problem, the oil and gas drilling takes place predominantly on federal land. Dave Garbett of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said that the Bureau of Land Management has not done enough to address the problem.

The biggest change we would like to see is not necessarily in the behavior of the state of Utah,” he said. “Most of the oil and gas activity taking place in the Uintah Basin ultimately authorized and permitted by the Bureau of Land Management because it takes place on federal lands. The BLM has this opportunity to holistically try and tackle this problem and they really haven’t.”  

Utah currently ranks tenth among states in terms of gross natural gas production.