A coalition of public health and conservation groups today pressed their case against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the agency’s failure to protect the Uinta Basin of northeast Utah from dangerously high levels of smog pollution. Wintertime smog in the basin in recent years rivaling that usually found in Los Angeles and Houston has resulted from air pollution generated by booming oil and gas operations and other industrial activity.
In a filing with a federal appeals court today, the coalition argued that EPA violated the Clean Air Act by failing to designate the Uinta Basin as being in violation of federal health standards. Such a designation would force state and federal agencies clean up the air.
“We became involved because people in the area have come to us with observations that there are serious health consequences already plaguing the Uinta Basin,” said Dr. Brian Moench of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “The EPA seems to have turned their back on this community and willfully ignored the evidence.”
The suit has taken on additional urgency after this past winter, when the air pollution in the Uinta Basin exceeded federal health standards on at least 43 days and on several occasions reached near-emergency levels. At-risk residents were urged to avoid exposure to the air pollution by remaining inside although they live in a region known for wide open spaces and an outdoor-oriented lifestyle.
“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. “EPA needs to stop talking and start doing. The time has come to clean up the air.”
Public health experts recognize the air pollution dangers in the Uinta Basin. The American Lung Association gave Uintah County an “F” for ozone in its 2013 State of the Air report, telling residents that “the air you breathe may put your health at risk.”
“Federal and state agencies have done little to nothing to prevent this problem,” said David Garbett, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Although the public has been pleading with them to address this matter they have allowed the problem to grow. This lawsuit should help to finally get them to start taking action.”
Despite the ongoing pollution and public health concerns, the EPA has asserted that the available monitoring data cannot be used to make the Clean Air Act designation, even while the agency admits the data is valid.
“All we’re asking is that the EPA stop playing games with the clean air that people depend on,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director. “The Uinta Basin’s smog problem is very real, but we can’t realistically solve it so long as the EPA keeps turning its back on clean, healthy air.”
The suit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of WildEarth Guardians, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
The smog problem in the Uinta Basin is the result of ground-level ozone, which in this area is primarily fueled by air pollution from unchecked oil and gas drilling and coal-fired power plants in the region. Despite its remoteness and rural nature, the Uinta Basin has seen a boom of industrial-scale energy development in recent years. Federal agencies alone last year approved more than 5,000 new oil and gas wells in the region. These new sources, coupled with already operating polluters such as the 500 megawatt coal-fired Bonanza power plant, which has been reported to be violating limits on smog forming pollution, have made the basin ground zero for wintertime smog.
A study completed in February by the state of Utah found that oil and gas industry operations were responsible for 98-99% volatile organic compounds and 57-61% of nitrogen oxides—the two chemical precursors of ground-level ozone—released in the basin.
Monitoring data in the Uinta Basin shows severe violations of federal health limits on ground-level ozone, which are set at 75 parts per billion. This past winter, levels exceeded this standard 43 times during January, February and March. Peak ozone concentrations reached higher than 115 parts per billion on several days and ozone exceedances lasted for as long as 11 days straight.
These 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 are so far above safe limits 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.
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 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.
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 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.