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Last week, while the Wasatch Front built up particulate concentrations unseen in the area since 2013, residents of Duchesne and Uintah counties experienced their own air-quality crisis as concentrations of small particulate pollution and ozone simultaneously reached unhealthy levels.

On Friday, at the peak of the episode, Duchesne exceeded the red-air range and climbed into the purple or "very unhealthy" category for a few hours, according to the state's air-quality monitors.

This isn't the first time the Uinta Basin counties have experienced a severe episode of air pollution — ozone overages in particular have become routine in the region, even during the winter, a phenomenon scientists still can't explain. What is known is that exposure to ground-level ozone can cause inflammation in the lungs and may result in permanent scaring of the lung tissue.

State regulators with the Division of Air Quality (DAQ) believe a research partnership with the University of Utah may be on the cusp of understanding how ozone, normally considered a summertime problem, is forming in the basin during the dead of winter. But the project's funding, provided by the oil and gas industry, is in jeopardy — so the DAQ has turned to the Legislature in hopes of securing an ongoing $250,000 appropriation that would fund the project for seven years.

A bill to provide that funding and make the Uintah Basin Air Quality Research Project an official state initiative has gained a unanimously favorable committee recommendation. SB118, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Van Tassel, R-Vernal, was also supported by industry representatives, who spoke favorably of the measure's plan to pull funding from the Infrastructure and Economic Diversification Investment Account.

"This is an exceptionally wise use of this money," said Lee Peacock, president of the Utah Petroleum Association. "There is a lot yet to be learned about the cause of the problem and what we can do to improve the situation."

Ozone is considered an almost exclusively secondary air pollutant, meaning it forms in the atmosphere as a consequence of reactions between other pollutants. Ozone formation is triggered by ultraviolet light, so the buildup of ozone is far more likely to occur during summer months.

Wintertime ozone formation still isn't fully understood, but it is thought to involve the interplay of very cold weather conditions, reflective snow cover and certain volatile organic compounds emitted during oil and gas extraction.

According to Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, scientists thought ozone was almost exclusively a summertime pollutant until 2010, when atmospheric scientists first observed unhealthy concentrations of ozone building in Wyoming during winter months.

The Uintah Basin Air Quality Research Project, which would be headed by Utah State University, would include a large-scale effort to assess emissions from oil and gas production facilities, especially from storage tanks, that may not be fully accounted for in the DAQ's current emission inventories. Current inventories estimate that these storage tanks may be responsible for a significant amount of volatile organic compounds released in the area. However, limited research conducted so far suggests the tanks may be releasing even more emissions than previously thought, due to leaking equipment, according to Bird.

The research project would involve using infrared cameras to monitor actual emissions from a representative sample of the basin's more than 10,000 oil and gas wells in an effort to build a better model for estimating the concentrations of volatile organic compounds in the area.

Twitter: @EmaPen —

Feb. 13 Air Quality at a Glance

Salt Lake County (red AQI):

Maximum small particulate • 62.9 ug/m3

Maximum ozone • 20 ppb

Utah County (red AQI):

Maximum small particulate • 55.9 ug/m3

Maximum ozone • 18 ppb

Davis County (orange AQI):

Maximum small particulate • 51.4 ug/m3

Maximum ozone • 19 ppb

Duchesne County (purple AQI):

Maximum small particulate • 35.9 ug/m3

Maximum ozone • 105 ppb

Uintah County (red AQI):

Maximum small particulate • 39.5 ug/m3

Maximum ozone • 86 ppb

EPA health-based air quality standards:

Small particulate • 35 ug/m3

Ozone • 70 ppb

ug/m3 = micrograms of particles per cubic meter of air

ppb = parts per billion

Both figures expressed as 1-hour averages