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"Our mission," said the NOAA scientist, "is to find out what’s happening so you can decide what to do."
The biggest complication has been this year’s mild winter. Without the usual blanket of snow to bounce the pollution-making sunlight, ozone levels have been low. In fact, they did not reach the federal Clean Air Act standard of 75 parts per billion once this winter.
Last winter, they reached or exceeded the standard 25 times. And the winter before that it was 40, so the investigators already know the snow and inversions somehow play an important role.
"I guarantee you the snow didn’t make ozone before the oil and gas came here," Roberts said
Even without the usual snow cover, inversions and bone-chilling cold, scientists have been pleased with the information they’ve gathered so far.
The silver lining might be that the levels measured this winter will be a good baseline, allowing for better comparisons once they come back and get data for a snowier, presumably more polluted year, said Scott Hill, director of the Energy Dynamics lab in Vernal.
"That will give us a lot of insights," he said.
Scientists working on this year’s study have returned to their labs to analyze all the clues they’ve gathered through the winter. It will take months — perhaps more than a year — to publish their findings.
"We’ve learned a lot," said NOAA scientist Russ Schnell. "But we’ve just started to scratch the surface."
No doubt the results are eagerly awaited in the community.
Tom Elder, a high school science teacher in Vernal, said he hopes the study will produce some valuable answers and suggest solutions that will clean up the air without spurring a regulatory crackdown that could cost jobs and cripple the economic vitality as many fear.
"I do hope they follow the evidence to the truth regardless of what they find," he said, applauding the cooperative effort by the local, state and federal regulators and the energy industry. "The reason it came together is because they are scared spitless."
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