The Upper Green River Basin is home to thousands of oil and gas wells and a cold, snowy winter. Unfortunately, those make up prime conditions for the formation of the pollutant ozone. While the area has struggled to control ozone for years, 2019 saw the highest spikes since 2011.
Elaine Crumpley, a board member for Citizens United for Responsible Energy Development (CURED), has been following wintertime ozone there since it was discovered 15 years ago by a student of hers. This year, she's had an uptick in calls including from frustrated parents.
"We just had spring break, and they were in fear of allowing their kids to go outside and play on a beautiful blue, sunshine day because the ozone was up," Crumpley said.
Wyoming's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) encourages sensitive populations like children and the elderly not to exert themselves too much or even stay indoors on ozone action days. That's when the pollutant rises above safe levels. Crumpley said she's already heard accounts of health issues this year.
"We have people who are complaining of sore throats, coughing, watering, itchy eyes, pressure on their chest, and increases of asthma attacks," Crumpley explained.
There have been 15 ozone action days this year. Of those days, the health standard has been exceeded 9 times, according to the DEQ. There were none last year. Other than 2017, it's been years of no major ozone issues
Crumpley said the status quo in handling ozone is clearly not working.
"This beautiful pristine place is being ruined by these high levels of ozone in the winter," Crumpley said.
Isabel Rucker, a business owner and 16-year resident of Pinedale said people tell her, 'Well, it's just a few days of the year.'
"It's ridiculous. We shouldn't have to put up with it," she said. "I think there's a lot of just frustrated resignation because it keeps happening and we're not seeing action."
The Department of Environmental Quality is well aware of the issue. Nancy Vehr, administrator of DEQ's air quality division. She explained she's concerned, but that her division is doing everything it can.
"[We've] done a permitting program of oil and gas production sources. We've done it through policy. We've done it through regulations such as our existing source regulation," Vehr said.
The department doesn't only use ozone action days for announcements, but to signal to energy companies to lower emissions. Citizens have also been arguing two inspectors aren't enough to make sure emissions controls are properly functioning for thousands of wells in the Upper Green. Vehr said the department is now considering adding another.
For the most part, Vehr says DEQ's strategy has been working. Only one out of the five monitors in the Upper Green are seeing such high ozone levels - the Boulder Station monitor.
And weather conditions this year have been favorable for the formation of ozone because of heavy snowpack and little wind.
"That's not within our control, the weather conditions," Vehr said.
But Robert Field, senior research scientist at University of Wyoming's Department of Atmospheric Science, would like to see more from the DEQ. He said the current system to mitigate ozone isn't as precise as it could be, especially with the continued rise of oil and gas development in the state.
"We're just relying upon the weather and the good fortune of reducing emissions on an ozone action day that we don't really understand," Field said.
He said a more precise emissions reduction program should be developed to predict when ozone will form and what exact emissions are contributing to its formation. He said that would reduce reliance on varying weather conditions. Field said Utah worked with a federal agency to put together a system like that, and Wyoming could do the same.
"We can use different weather scenarios to give us, maybe, different levels of emission reduction that we might need to instigate. Say, last week, maybe we'd have to have the most stringent level of emission control and maybe that would even be stopping drilling, just for a period of time, a few weeks or a week whilst the weather clear," Field said.
He said it's time to get moving because this year's preliminary ozone readings were high enough to push Wyoming back into marginal non-attainment.
That's a wonky way of saying they're outside federal limits. DEQ's Vehr didn't comment on that possibility and said she's focused on keeping ozone within the state's health standards.
Keith Guille, DEQ public information officer, said it's not easy to develop a more precise framework like the one Field is describing. So, the department's focus has been on reducing emissions as a whole. But he said the department is not saying the battle to reduce wintertime ozone is over.
"I think that we've made some great strides through these years, almost like 15 years to tackle these precursor emissions, but we're not done, and we don't think we're done. There's still some more work to do. And that's what we're going to be addressing," Guille said.
He said the DEQ will hold an open house later this year to provide more information on this season. Finalized numbers will likely come this summer to see if the state is once again outside federal limits for ozone.