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Groups seek court action on Uinta Basin smog

Published September 17, 2013 6:56 pm

Air quality • Consortium of Utah groups sues to have basin redesignated, force state to take stronger action.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Environmentalists are asking a federal appeals court to overrule the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and declare the Uinta Basin out of compliance with federal clean-air standards.

Booming oil and gas development in Uintah and Duchesne counties emits enough pollutants so that wintertime ozone there is as bad as many industrial cities in the summer, according to documents filed Tuesday, two days before an "energy summit" is to convene in Vernal.

A consortium of Utah groups wants the basin to be officially designated a "non-attainment" zone as a way to force the state to take strong actions "in the face of an undeniable threat to public health."

"People in the area have come to us with concerns that there are serious health consequences already plaguing the Uinta Basin," Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said in a statement released late Tuesday. "The EPA seems to have turned their back on this community and willfully ignored the evidence."

On 43 days last winter, the basin's smog levels breached federal standards, forcing at-risk residents to remain indoors to avoid the lung irritants filling the air. Ground-level ozone is a particular problem in the basin, exceeding federal standards for 11 straight days at one point. A state-funded study recently concluded that oil and gas operations release up to 99 percent of the volatile organic compounds and 61 percent of nitrogen oxides — both chemical precursors to ozone — found in the basin's airshed.

Winter inversions trap these pollutants near the ground which react with sunlight to form ozone.

Citing uncertainties with monitoring data, the EPA has deemed the airshed "unclassifiable," which carries no requirements under the Clean Air Act to reduce pollution.

Federal officials could not be reached Tuesday.

Earthjustice filed the challenge in the Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., on behalf of Moench's group, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and WildEarth Guardians.

bmaffly@sltrib.com