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Small Emission Sources Could Mean Big Pollution, But No One’s Counting

Irina Zhorov

Some landowners with oil and gas wells on their property complain about emissions affecting their air quality and health. But though there may be a lot of wells, they’re considered small facilities, so their cumulative effects are never counted up and regulations are more lax than for large emitters. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports that that could be a problem since in aggregate, their pollution can be significant.  

IRINA ZHOROV: On a chilly day last spring, John Fenton stood on a sandy bluff overlooking his property in Pavillion. A small natural gas well sat atop the little hill.  

JOHN FENTON: There’s two well heads here and then a produced water tank, and then these are the separators that take the liquids out of the gas, and put them into the tank.

ZHOROV: The wind whipped around him as he spoke and his dog came barreling up the hill.

ZHOROV: What’s he barking at?

FENTON: He’s barking at the pump the gas is coming out because he doesn’t like the noise it makes.

ZHOROV: Fenton said with each click of the pump [clicking sound], natural gas is released into the air.

FENTON: The wind’s blowing a little today, but if you get closer you can definitely smell it. It’s that sharp kind of nail polish smell is the best way to describe it I guess. It’ll give you a headache if you get a smell of it. It’s probably not real good for you.

ZHOROV: Fenton says the problem is how these small facilities are permitted.

FENTON: Each one of these is permitted by itself. So it’s not a major source. It’s a real easy way to just avoid the bigger picture.

ZHOROV: There are small sources and big, major sources which emit over 100 tons of any regulated pollutant per year. Major sources are more carefully scrutinized and can be analyzed in aggregate by regulators. Here’s Air Quality Administrator for the Department of Environmental Quality, Steve Dietrich.

STEVE DIETRICH: The way the Clean Air Act is set up and the way our authority work for minor sources, if you’re a minor source that kind of analysis is generally not required.

ZHOROV: Additionally, some sources in the area are so small that their emission rate is not high enough to even warrant controls. Control means emissions have to be reduced by 98-percent or better, usually through a flare or some other capture or combustion process. If the facility is below the control threshold, it can just release pollutants into the air. The threshold is quite low.

According to the DEQ, there are nearly 300 small, uncontrolled sites around Pavillion. WPR requested emissions data from several wells in that region. If we assume that their emissions are about average, that means in aggregate the uncontrolled wells in Pavillion are releasing over 500 tons of volatile organic compounds per year all told. That’s more than 5 major sources would emit. To put this into perspective, that’s nearly twice as much as Wyoming’s largest coal power plant emitted in 2010. And that’s only for volatile organic compounds. There are other pollutants, too.

But DEQ doesn’t add up the emissions from these small sources. Dietrich says there’s a reason for that.

DIETRICH: They’re all small, they’re not owned by the same company all the time, they may not be linked together on the same piece of property, and those are all the criteria that we go through to see if it’s even possible to lump them together. And it’s specifically set up that way so that you don’t end up with such a cumbersome permitting program that you never get to issue any permits.  

DEB THOMAS: I don’t think that permitting should be the issue. I think that protecting public health and our air quality should be the issue.

ZHOROV: That’s Deb Thomas, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council. She says she hears people in oil and gas development areas complain of headaches, breathing difficulties, respiratory ailments, nose polyps, ear problems, dizziness, loss of taste and smell, as well as things like neuropathy, nervous disorders, cancers, and kidney and liver conditions. 

THOMAS: I think most people understand that there are many different factors that can cause some of these conditions, but because we’re seeing a lot of those conditions in the areas where development is taking place and because we know that many of the chemicals and the hydrocarbons that are produced can cause many of those conditions and illnesses it’s very important for people to understand what those exposures are.

ZHOROV: Thomas was one of the people that fought to get an ambient air monitor into Pavillion. After a year of monitoring, it showed no exceedances of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The monitor sat downwind of the gas field, about 6 miles east of Pavillion.

THOMAS: Though it gave a good cumulative idea of what the air quality was in that area outside of Pavillion and outside of the area that’s under heavy development, it did not explain to people what they’re exposed to who are living right in the contamination, right in the production areas.  

ZHOROV: Which is exactly where John Fenton lives. You can see several wells from his front porch where he relaxes and they’re scattered in the fields where he works. Fenton isn’t the only one with industrial facilities right in his yard.

But DEQ’s Cara Keslar says the monitor did its job. 

KESLAR: I believe the Pavillion monitor achieved our objective of looking at what the citizens are breathing in terms of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards and if we are meeting those.

ZHOROV: However, Keslar says that such ambient air monitoring isn’t really even designed to do exposure assessments of contaminants to people – according to her that’s a different study, different pollutants, and a different agency’s responsibility.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Irina Zhorov.

Irina Zhorov is a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She earned her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from the University of Wyoming. In between, she worked as a photographer and writer for Philadelphia-area and national publications. Her professional interests revolve around environmental and energy reporting and she's reported on mining issues from Wyoming, Mexico, and Bolivia. She's been supported by the Dick and Lynn Cheney Grant for International Study, the Eleanor K. Kambouris Grant, and the Social Justice Research Center Research Grant for her work on Bolivian mining and Uzbek alpinism. Her work has appeared on Voice of America, National Native News, and in Indian Country Today, among other publications.
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