Pam Rosal knew that the Uinta Basin's air can get pretty polluted. But, like other basin residents, the mother of two was shocked last fall when she heard how bad it sometimes gets, reaching levels worse than anywhere else in the nation.
Now Rosal just wants to learn more. She'd like to know what pollution levels are day-to-day. She'd like to know what she can do to protect her family and what leaders are prepared to do to deal with the ozone's effect on public health.
"There's not a real clear voice" for people like herself, she said, adding that more scientific research is needed to make sure the proper balance between public health and the energy industry is struck. "I don't have a lot of confidence the voice for health and sustainability is being put forth effectively."
Rosal is not alone. Many basin residents are concerned that leaders are so focused on protecting the oil and gas industry from additional regulation that they are overlooking the elephant in the room: public health.
"It's very concerning," said David Bell, a White Rocks resident who sees flaring from the wells outside his rural home nightly. "You can actually see the pollution."
Allen Reyos also sees a "soup" in the air sometimes from his home outside Fort Duchesne.
"It's bad," he said, "and I am concerned."
That Uinta Basin residents are hungry for more information about ozone pollution is not terribly surprising. Smog, as it's often called, causes what some people describe as a "sunburn" on the lungs.
Like the PM 2.5 pollution that plagues basins in northern Utah periodically in winter, ozone pollution poses a special risk to the very young, the very old and people with heart and lung problems like asthma.
But ozone, in contrast to PM 2.5, also harms perfectly healthy people who work outdoors or who exert themselves during high-pollution periods. When ozone levels build, usually on summer afternoons in urban and industrial areas, runners and outdoor workers are urged to avoid exerting themselves.
"We definitely know ozone is a threat," said Lacey Holmes of the American Lung Association in Utah.
It burns lungs and airways, leaving them red and inflamed. It causes chest pain, coughing, asthma attacks and reduced lung function. And scientific studies have shown that, over time, it can even shorten lives.
"It's a serious health threat," said Holmes.
Local leaders, like Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee, and energy industry spokeswoman Kathleen Sgamma say that public health is certainly a concern when it comes to the basin's ozone woes.
But they also insist much more information is needed to figure out what kinds of controls would reduce ozone pollution and to avert new regulations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on industry and the community.
"This is something that is going to take time," saidMcKee, who's leading the commission's efforts on ozone.
"We're always working to reduce emissions," said Sgamma, who has said previously she was not aware of any energy-industry programs to educate workers about the health effects of ozone. "And we're working to improve air quality."
McKee has included the Tri-County Health Department on an advisory team. The department's director, Joseph Shaffer, did not respond to phone calls requesting an interview about his agency's strategy.
Meanwhile, people like Rosal, Reyos and Bell did not know where they could turn to find out what daily ozone levels are information considered essential for managing respiratory symptoms of people who are sensitive to pollution.
Carl Daly of the EPA's Denver office said his agency wants the public to have basic information about the pollution. That's why the EPA publishes daily pollution results from an air-quality monitor at Dinosaur National Park, at the northeastern corner of the basin about 20 miles from Vernal.
"We are encouraging people to go to the AirNow website exactly for that reason," he said.
Although there are 16 other air monitors throughout the basin some controlled by the Utah Division of Air Quality, the Ute tribe, a Utah State University Research project and the EPA none of them provides data that is released to the public.
When local officials in Cache Valley first learned about the severity of the winter pollution in their northern Utah communities, they had a far different response than their eastern Utah counterparts.
"We looked at it quite frankly as a health issue," said Lloyd Berentzen, executive director of the Bear River Health Department, whose team studied the issue in-depth.
"We know there is a negative health consequence from poor air quality," he said. "Because of that knowledge, we really have an obligation to help our community."
Although EPA regulation of the PM 2.5 pollution it's a somewhat different animal than ozone pollution was years away, Cache Valley officials developed a comprehensive program aimed at informing the public and enlisting their cooperation in reducing pollution.
They encouraged high school students to carpool and businesses with drive-thru windows to keep them closed during high-pollution periods. They passed an ordinance outlawing the use of wood- and coal-burning stoves when air quality was poor, and they imposed a $2 per vehicle fee on each vehicle registration to help pay for the pollution-control programs.
They urged elementary schools to offer indoor alternatives for recess when pollution reached levels of concern.
And now, the public has a wide variety of tools for staying informed about pollution day to day. There's the health department's web page, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed and instant text messages.
"The more education we do," said Berentzen, "the more people understand there's an issue we need to deal with."
As for the folks in the UintaBasin, there are still lots of questions.
For Rosal, whose children are ages 2 and 8, assurances by local leaders fall short when they are not accompanied by action.
"They are saying the right thing," she said, "but their bills are being paid for by revenues from the oil and gas fields."
She wonders if the pollution situation would improve if only federal regulators at the EPA and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management enforced the laws already on the books.
The idea of more regulation? "That just doesn't fly here," she said.
In the end, Rosal would feel a lot better about raising her family in Vernal, a diverse community she's grown to love, if she only had more information.
"I want to know what days air quality is bad," she said. "I want to know what days I need to be concerned for my kids. I don't feel like there's a place to go for [that] information."
For more information:
About ozone health effects, see the American Lung Association's web page › bit.ly/i3Kitl
For daily reports about ozone in Utah see the EPA's AirNow.gov web page and click on the "ozone" button
For tools to help manage asthma, visit the Utah Health Department's asthma program online › health.utah.gov/asthma/
Or check out the pollution-preparedness kit developed by Breathe Utah › www.breatheutah.org/emergency-plan