Clean air is essential for good health. But, for the third year in a row Sublette County has received a failing grade for ozone pollution in the American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report.
Citizens in Sublette County have expressed concerns to each other, as well as to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, about the health symptoms they experience on days when ozone levels are higher. A recent scientific study by the Wyoming Department of Health has validated what many people in Sublette County have long known: More local residents seek medical help for respiratory ailments on days with higher ozone pollution.
The direct link between ozone levels and health impacts is no surprise. Nationally, and internationally, scientists have known for some time that exposure to ground-level ozone air pollution (commonly known as “smog”), even at very low levels, can cause a number of respiratory health effects. People affected the most include children, the elderly and adults with respiratory diseases. In addition, studies indicate that one in three healthy adults are more sensitive to ozone and are more likely to experience related health effects.
It has been several years since air quality monitors first began to detect this pollution in the Upper Green River Basin. At times, these monitors have shown that our local air pollution can be even worse than the smog levels in Los Angeles. Our air is unfairly compromising our health.
There are no names or faces attached to the scientific literature that outlines health problems associated with ground-level ozone, such as coughing, irritated eyes, difficulty breathing, airway inflammation, increased susceptibility to respiratory infection and aggravated asthma, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other respiratory diseases. And research has shown that exposure, even at low levels, for a period of time can lead to people dying significantly younger than they would have had they not been exposed. The Department of Health study puts a Wyoming face on the issue and underlines the need for fast action to reduce this harmful air pollution.
Overall, the researchers from the Department of Health examined more than 12,000 cases of respiratory problems during the study period; this in a county with a population with barely more than 10,000 people. The study showed a relationship between clinic visits and days with higher ozone pollution levels. Results indicated that for every 10 parts-per-billion increase in the ozone pollution levels, there were
3 percent more visits to local clinics the next day for adverse respiratory-related effects. These numbers would likely have been even higher had visits to doctors outside the county been included.
This ozone problem is created by a complicated interaction between two different air pollutants: oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds. The main source of both of these forms of pollution in the Pinedale area is natural gas development. As the Health Department study mentions, there has been a tenfold increase in gas wells in our region in recent years, during the same period that our air quality has deteriorated.
Luckily, solving this problem doesn’t mean stopping local natural gas and oil development. But it does mean improvements are needed, like putting in place pollution control devices and methods already in use in other parts of the country.
In March, the DEQ announced its plan to improve local air quality — a plan largely based on the consensus recommendations of the Upper Green River Basin Air Quality Citizens Advisory Task Force, a broad group of local citizens, elected officials, the oil and gas industry, and environmental representatives. I was an alternate member of this task force. The DEQ brought this group together to make sensible recommendations. It included simple yet effective ideas such as requiring producers to search for and fix leaky gas and oil drilling equipment and making strong pollution controls apply to existing sources that have been “grandfathered in” (not subject to) to the regulatory regime. But for the air to improve in Sublette County and to protect the people who live here, these recommendations must be made a reality.
The DEQ needs to move to the rulemaking and implementation phase of this plan as quickly as possible.
The state of Wyoming should be commended for conducting a significant amount of research into the causes of Sublette County’s ozone problem and for investing time and staff resources into finding solutions. But the bottom line is this: Ozone is here, it’s harming the health of people who live, work and recreate in Sublette County, and there are things we can do to change it. The Department of Health study emphasizes this need.
The DEQ needs to put health issues related to ozone air pollution on the front burner and it needs to get on the same page as scientists and health professionals. It’s time for the state to use all of the great information it’s gathered to date to make much-needed improvements to protect its citizens. There are no longer any excuses for delaying this process.