A kind of scientific SWAT team is getting ready to swarm the Uinta Basin to gather data about high-pollution periods.
"Over the next couple of weeks and into February, they will be out there," said Brock LeBaron, deputy director of the Utah Air Quality Division, noting that a high-pressure system and snow cover are key factors in the creation of the basin's unusual pollution problem. "The forecast looks good for high-ozone conditions."
Because the weather didn't cooperate last year the mild winter meant no snow to boost pollution a $5 million data-gathering effort by nearly a dozen government agencies, universities and other organizations failed to solve the winter ozone puzzle. This year, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the state Department of Environmental Quality, Utah State University, the University of Utah, the Western Energy Alliance and other organizations are teaming up once again in hopes of gaining more insight into a pollution problem that's usually confined to summertime in big cities.
Last week, at Gov. Gary Herbert's Energy Development Summit, panelists from government regulatory agencies, from the oil and gas industry and the Ute tribe gave agreed that cooperation was key to addressing the basin's ozone problem.
"It's going to have to be a unified front," LeBaron said.
A better understanding of how the pollution forms is crucial, the panel noted, to keep the oil and gas industry on track and to ensure breathable air in eastern Utah.
Nearly 200 turned out for the Friday panel as part of Herbert's two-day energy-promotion event. Overall, more than 1,000 were scheduled to attend. On Thursday, protesters rallied outside the Salt Palace Convention Center to decry the summit's heavy focus on fossil fuels, including coal, natural gas and oil, and to criticize its skimpy treatment of renewable energy, such as solar, wind and geothermal.
Regulators and industry hope new data can help them ward off ozone so there is no crackdown under the Clean Air Act.
"What we really have been trying to do is serve as problem solvers with the various parties be transparent, be collaborative, be pragmatic but all the while remembering we have a job to do," said Kate Fay of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Denver office. "The EPA's job is to protect the air and water and public health."
Oil and gas development exploded in Uintah and Duchesne counties in recent years, along with ozone levels sometimes reaching nearly double the EPA's health-based standard over 25 days of a winter season.