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Some Laramie County residents are concerned for their air quality due to oil and gas development in their communities

A man stands in the middle of the prairie while an oil tanker passes behind him.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Laramie County resident Wayne Lax stands in the prairie. He and other Laramie County residents are concerned about their air quality because of oil and gas development in residential areas.

Laramie County resident Wayne Lax drives through old town Cheyenne to get to his house just a couple miles outside of city limits.

“So, we're gonna turn and go north, and I'll start showing you the activity,” Lax said. “If you look out over those blocks, you can see some oil and gas stuff sticking up.”

One can see hundreds of homes all on a couple acres of prairie, and mixed in with these houses is oil and gas development. Driving through one passes a home and then a couple pump jacks, and then past another home one sees a drilling rig.

Pump jacks near a home in Laramie County.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Pump jacks near a home in Laramie County.

Oil and gas activity significantly picked up in Laramie County about 10 years ago, and in the years since, it has moved into residential areas. Lax is part of the Cheyenne Area Landowners Coalition (CALC), and their group advocates for residents that are concerned about this development.

“I mean it's just in these people's backyards,” said Katherine Stahl, an organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council (PRBRC), which oversees CALC.

In Wyoming, development can happen 500 feet from a home – or a little less than one and a half football fields.
“And so that is really concerning, given that when methane leaks, it's a colorless, odorless gas,” Stahl said.

That is specifically what CALC is worried about – leaks that could be potentially as close as 500 feet from their homes are impacting their air quality. They voiced this concern to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), so the agency placed a temporary air quality monitor about 10 miles away.

An oil derrick is seen between the bones of a newly constructed house.
Wayne Lax
Looking through the construction of a new home, one can see oil and gas development.

But, for Wayne Lax and other landowners, this defeats the point because it is not near their homes.

“We questioned, ‘Why?’” Lax said. “There's a lot going on in multiple areas in the county that would be really valuable to our perspective to get that unit near.”

To get to the monitor Lax drives about 20 minutes from his house and the heart of the oil and gas development. The prairie starts to take over and the houses are farther and fewer between. Eventually, it is just prairie, some distant oil and gas infrastructure and no houses.

A map of Laramie County with an area circled in green.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
In green is where Lax and other CALC members that are concerned about oil and gas development and its nearby health effects live. In pink is about where the DEQ air quality monitor is located.

On the side of a rural fire district building is the air monitor.

“It’s that trailer right there,” Lax said. “Yep, there it is. Looks like the same one they had here years ago.”

Back in 2019, the DEQ set up a temporary monitor for about a year and a half in the exact same spot in response to CALC’s concerns about air quality. It never reported any concerning results, but the group had the same issues with the placement then too – it was too far away.

Kimberly Mazza, DEQ’s public information supervisor, said the monitor was brought back this year in response to residents’ concerns about air quality. She said the placement of the monitor follows National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

An air quality monitor on a trailer sits next to a tan metal building.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
The DEQ’s temporary air quality monitor is near a rural fire district building in Laramie County.

“We look at wind direction. We look at the surrounding area,” Mazza said. “Also that we are away from walls – obstructions that would affect the monitoring. So, that would create buffers that would interfere with getting an adequate reading on the air.”

The monitor is in the wide-open and downwind of activity. It tests for several greenhouse gasses, like methane and nitrogen oxide, that are linked to oil and gas development. If those gasses are found at high levels they can be dangerous to humans.

Mazza added that the monitor is meant to read the ambient air in a region – not specific points.

“It is not a source point monitor,” she said. “So to say that it would read specific leaks, that's not what that is made for.”

So far this year, the monitor shows that the air is pretty good for breathing.

Sound barriers sit behind a home on the prairie.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
A sound barrier can be seen to the left of a house in Laramie County. These barriers are set up for drilling rigs, to help with noise reduction.

But Katherine Stahl, with PRBRC, said it is not going to pick up the potential chemical leaks that the group is concerned about. She added that they have a legitimate reason to believe that these leaks exist. A study commissioned by the group in 2021 showed hazardous leaks at oil and gas sites in residential areas.

But, the industry maintains that leaks are not common practice.

“The oil and gas industry and companies are constantly looking for leaks and making sure that they’re addressing those concerns,” said Ryan Mcconaughey, Petroleum Association of Wyoming vice president. “A leak is not only a concern for them, because of the release of the gas, but also that’s a loss in revenues for them as well.”

The air quality monitor will stay in Laramie County for a year.

Resident Wayne Lax said he does not expect it to show anything significant – he still thinks it is too far away from the activity.

“I understand that the energy is needed,” Lax said. “I just wish that people’s safety and people's well being would be taken into account along with that.”

The industry and DEQ insist they are doing that, but Lax is not convinced. What happens next will be based on the monitor’s results.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.

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