Growth In Energy Production Prompts Concerns Over Air Monitoring Network

Jan 17, 2014

Monitoring stations like this one in Converse County track a range of pollutants in the air.
Credit Willow Belden

We’ve reported often on the effects that energy production can have on air quality. The most obvious example is Pinedale, where federal ambient air quality standards were violated, largely because of emissions from natural gas production. Regulators say the air elsewhere in the state is fine. But some worry that Wyoming doesn’t have a sufficient monitoring network to know for sure. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.

BELDEN: I’m standing outside the air quality monitoring station in Converse County with Amber Potts. She works for the Department of Environmental Quality. The station is in an open field, in an area with lots of new oil production.

AMBER POTTS: You can see a rig out on the horizon. You can see the well pads.

BELDEN: The monitoring station is a big white trailer, equipped with various instruments that take in air samples. Inside, machines analyze how clean the air is. They monitor for particulate matter, like dust. And also for pollutants such as ozone.

POTTS: Right now our ozone … is 35.5, or 35.4. That’s a good background concentration for this area.

WILLOW BELDEN: The Environmental Protection Agency regulates ambient air quality, which is a fancy name for how clean the air is. They impose limits on various different pollutants, with the idea that if pollution levels are below the limit, the air is safe to breathe. In Wyoming, DEQ is in charge of monitoring to determine if those standards are met. They have 35 monitoring stations across the state. Except for one in Sublette County, where ozone levels have been a problem, all indicate that air quality is satisfactory. But are 35 monitors enough to really know that the air is ok everywhere?

MARK SQUILLACE: In theory at least, the planning process is designed to ensure that there are an adequate number of monitors and that violations that may be occurring of the ambient air quality standards are being identified and then being addressed through the plan.

BELDEN: That’s Mark Squillace, at the University of Colorado Law School. He specializes in Natural Resources Law, and the plan he’s referring to is the network plan that DEQ has to draw up each year. It lays out where all the monitors are and explains why monitors are needed in those areas. EPA then has to sign off on the plan. But Squillace says EPA’s requirements for what the plan has to include are vague.

SQUILLACE: It’s not entirely clear where those monitors are supposed to be, or how many monitors they have to have.

BELDEN: Squillace says it’s in the state’s interest to not violate the standards, but it can also be in their interest to not detect violations.

Inside the monitoring stations, a series of machines analyze how clean the air is.
Credit Willow Belden

SQUILLACE: There are some significant consequences to the state when they fail to meet the ambient air quality standards. You’re basically not allowed to build major new facilities in any area that’s out of compliance without meeting very stringent standards. And so … one could argue that the state has an incentive to avoid identifying areas that are out of compliance.

BELDEN: In states like Wyoming, EPA is even more hands off about network requirements than in some other areas. Cara Keslar is in charge of DEQ’s air quality monitoring program.

CARA KESLAR: Usually what they’re most concerned about is population, so a lot of times Wyoming doesn’t end up having to put new monitors out based on EPA regulations, because they look for populations, say, over a  million in a city, or something like that.

BELDEN: And Wyoming has fewer than 600,000 people statewide. Keslar says Wyoming’s monitoring network goes above and beyond what EPA requires. She says they’re committed to making sure the air is clean, and that if there were any exceedences of federal standards, they would know. But there are 10 counties in Wyoming with no air quality monitors. I asked her how they know the air is OK in those places. Keslar says they make assumptions, based on how much development is in the area, and trends they’ve seen elsewhere.

KESLAR: If we don’t have a lot of emissions out there, then we kind of are forced to assume that it’s OK.

BELDEN: There are additional assumptions DEQ makes. For example, some of their monitors are mobile units, which typically get moved around each year. But you need three years of data to determine whether an area meets ozone standards. Keslar says if pollution levels are low for the one year that the monitor is in place, DEQ generally assumes the air is OK. If they see any alarming data, they can consider installing a permanent monitor. But Keslar says budget constraints can make that difficult.

KESLAR: If we need to put something new out, you don’t have any choice but to take something else away.

BELDEN: Take something else away – as in, remove a monitoring station from somewhere else in the state.

JILL MORRISON: That is a problem. Because the places where the monitors exist, I think we need them.

BELDEN: Jill Morrison is with the Powder River Basin Resource Council. She notes that energy production is increasing rapidly in many parts of the state, and she says air quality monitoring should mirror that activity.

MORRISON: You know, we need an expansion of the entire air quality monitoring network in the state. And DEQ needs to look at a way to manage their budget where they can increase the number of air monitors we’ve got.

BELDEN: Morrison says the monitoring should include not just areas where there’s already lots of development, but also baseline testing in places where future development could occur.

MORRISON: One of the problems, I think, is that we don’t get out in front of issues in order to prevent them from happening. Instead we wait for the problem to occur and then we try to marshal the forces and the funding to be able to address it after the fact.

BELDEN: But since monitors cost hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece, it’s not likely that DEQ will significantly expand their network, unless they can come up with more money. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.