A coalition of public health and conservation groups filed suit late Friday against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its failure to protect the Uinta Basin from dangerously high levels of smog pollution.
“Smog is a serious public health threat,” said Dr. Brian Moench of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “We have to confront this serious air quality problem if we have any chance of providing a clean, healthy future for our children and communities.”
The suit, filed by Earthjustice on behalf of WildEarth Guardians, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, challenges the EPA’s failure to declare that the Uinta Basin is violating federal health standards that limit concentrations of ground-level ozone in the air. The key ingredient of smog, ground-level ozone forms when pollution from tailpipes, smokestacks, and oil and gas drilling reacts with sunlight.
Although usually a big city problem, monitors in Uintah County in the rural Uinta Basin of northeastern Utah have recorded ground-level ozone levels so high that they rival Los Angeles and Houston.
“The Uinta Basin is home to some of the worst ground-level ozone pollution in the nation,” said Earthjustice staff attorney Robin Cooley who is representing the groups in court. “All we’re asking is that the EPA recognize this air pollution problem and start to clean it up.”
Under the Clean Air Act, if an area violates federal health standards, it has to be designated a “nonattainment area.” This designation triggers a mandatory air pollution clean up and forces state and federal agencies to develop a plan to ensure compliance.
Despite reliable monitoring showing violations of ground-level ozone standards, EPA refused to designate the Uinta Basin as a “nonattainment area.” Instead, EPA said the area is “unclassifiable.” An “unclassifiable” designation, unlike a “nonattainment” designation, does not carry with it mandatory requirements under the Clean Air Act that clear the pollution.
The groups’ challenge seeks EPA reconsideration and court review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit concerning EPA’s decision, which was issued on May 21, 2012.
Monitoring data in the Uinta Basin collected between 2009 and 2011 shows severe violations of federal health limits on ground-level ozone, which are set at 75 parts per billion. In 2010 and 2011, ozone levels rose as high as 121 parts per billion and 139 parts per billion, respectively. The high ozone levels pose a substantial threat to public health and threaten to shroud wild places like the scenic Book Cliffs and Dinosaur National Monument with smog.
The violations, which have occurred during the wintertime, are so far above safe limits—nearly double what EPA considers safe—that residents in nearby Vernal and the rest of the basin must take precautions to safeguard their health when going outdoors. Children with asthma and other respiratory ailments, elderly people, and adults with heart and lung difficulties are certainly at risk. However, air pollution this severe harms everyone who lives there and shortens their life expectancy. Pregnant women and unborn children are likely the most seriously affected.
Despite data clearly showing that the Uinta Basin is violating health standards, the EPA has refused to make a “nonattainment” designation, claiming that certain procedural hoops concerning the monitoring data have not been satisfied, even though EPA concedes that the data is “reliable” and “of good quality” and has urged other federal regulators to use the same data.
“With the health of children and communities at stake, it’s shameful that EPA is turning a blind eye to this problem,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director. “The Uinta Basin deserves better, it deserves clean, healthy air, and that’s what we intend to achieve.”
The smog problem in the Uinta Basin is primarily fueled by unchecked oil and gas drilling and coal-fired power plants in the region, including the 500 megawatt coal-fired Bonanza power plant in Uintah County. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management recently approved more than 5,000 new oil and gas wells in the region. Additionally, reports have found that the Bonanza coal-fired power plant is violating limits on smog forming pollution.
“Ozone levels in the basin are extremely high and are likely to get worse in the near future,” said Dr. Moench. “Our challenge to get a nonattainment designation is an absolute must to control the severe air quality impacts from oil and gas and other fossil fuels in the Uinta Basin and more importantly, to ensure lasting protection of public health and welfare.”