Air monitoring station

A Canyonlands National Park ranger explains the air monitoring station in Island in the Sky to visitors. [Photo by Neal Herbert / National Park Service]

Pollution and haze from distant areas, as well as the nearby growth in oil and gas extraction, are spurring local concern for air-quality monitoring in the Moab area.

During a recent Utah Public Radio program, Chris Baird, Executive Director of Canyonlands Watershed Council (CWC), presented the idea of placing an air-quality monitor in the Moab Valley. Grand County Council chairman Lynn Jackson responded.

“If we could work together to figure out a way to fund it, I think it would be a great idea,” Jackson said.

Moab resident Kiley Miller addressed the Grand County County Council at its meeting on Tuesday, April 15.

“Our air quality has obviously gotten much worse over the last few years,” she said. “It is time we move forward on this and make it a priority.”

Some nearby areas, including Canyonlands National Park, have been points of interest for air-quality data recording since the early '90s.

Renowned for its spectacular and seemingly endless views, Canyonlands is considered a Class I area under the Clean Air Act (CAA), which requires that the park receives the highest level of air-quality protection.

As a federal law, the CAA has authorized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), which regulate the emission of hazardous air pollutants considered harmful to public health and the environment.

Because its unique views are sometimes impacted by haze from the air pollution of distant power plants and other industrial facilities, Canyonlands participates in the National Park Service (NPS) Air Quality Program to assess air pollution and protect park resources.

Over the last two decades, scientists, officials and volunteers have been collecting air-quality data at a monitoring station at the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. This station, often referred to as I-Sky, records levels of ozone—a gaseous air pollutant—in the atmosphere of the Colorado Plateau.

Baird has been interested and involved in tracking air-quality data from I-Sky for several years.

“The most poignant concern is the NAAQS for ozone,” Baird said.

Measured by volume, this standard is currently set at .075 parts per million (ppm).

“In other words,” Baird explained, “if you were to analyze a billion atoms in a given space, 75 of those billion would be ozone atoms. It’s a small fraction.”

Statistics at monitoring stations such as I-Sky are averaged over a three-year period, using a measurement called “the annual fourth-highest daily maximum from an eight-hour period.” Currently, I-Sky’s three-year ozone average is .069 ppm.

According to the EPA, if a geographic area does not meet the NAAQS for air quality, it is called a “nonattainment area.” The I-Sky average complies, but not everyone agrees with these standards for ozone.

“Anything above .060 ppm is considered alarming, especially if your health is sensitive to ozone” Baird said. “Just because we’re not violating the national standard doesn’t mean that our air isn’t unhealthy.”

Baird also points out that I-Sky has only released data trends through mid-2012, so changes to air quality in the past two years are not well documented.

The EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) has recommended that these standards be set between .060 and .070 ppm.

“If the NAAQS for ozone were amended to comply with CASAC recommendations, I-Sky would either be in nonattainment or very close to it,” Baird said. “It’s important for people to know that, at .069 ppm, we are probably in an unhealthy state for air quality.”

Within the range of available validated information for I-Sky, which runs from July 1, 1992 to June 1, 2012, there have been 12 days consisting of 63 separate eight-hour averages exceeding the NAAQS ozone standard of .075 ppm.

If an area is designated as nonattainment, the EPA requires states to develop and implement control plans to reduce ozone-forming pollution.

“It amps up the regulation in the area once this happens,” Baird said. “It creates a lot more scrutiny on the oil and gas industry.”

The EPA warns that breathing tropospheric ozone—even relatively low levels of it—can trigger or worsen health problems such as emphysema, bronchitis and asthma. It is especially dangerous for children, people with lung disease, older adults and those who are active outdoors.

Ozone, which forms when pollutants chemically react in the presence of sunlight, can also be transported long distances by wind.

Jackson, a former geologist and executive with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), recalls previous studies of traveling air pollutants.

“We discovered that much of the haze in southeastern Utah was moving in from cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas,” Jackson said.

Approximately 200 miles north of Moab, the Uintah Basin is home to about 11,000 oil and gas wells, posing an obvious threat to nearby air quality.

“The Basin has some of the worst ozone problems in the country,” said Baird, who has been working for the past six years on establishing an air-quality monitoring station in the Moab Valley.

“It would be costly, but it’s in the interest of preserving health,” he said. “No one really knows the current levels of ozone down in the valley.”

Although I-Sky serves to assess air pollution and protect park resources, its samples are not necessarily beneficial to residents and visitors of the Moab Valley, which sits roughly 2,000 feet lower in elevation and more than 30 miles away.

In 2012, CWC filed a formal protest with the Utah BLM director. In this letter, CWC’s Laurel Hagen voiced her concern regarding a nearby industrial development and its regional effect on air quality.

“The current monitoring will not alert anyone of potential impacts to human health from inversion layers in valleys, where most people live,” Hagen wrote. “If air quality is nearing nonattainment in Canyonlands National Park, we are very concerned that it is already non-attaining in the Moab Valley.”

Hagen mentioned that, without a source of air-quality data for the Moab Valley, there is no way to determine whether oil and gas drilling activities are affecting air quality for Moab residents.

Baird’s idea for a monitor in the valley is less complex than I-Sky, which collects more than 90 percent of data over a three-year period.

“We would start small and take samples, preferably during an inversion in the wintertime,” he said, noting that I-Sky is above the inversion level. “Then we would evaluate if we found a problem.”

Baird said the air-quality monitor would ideally be placed in a central, populated area of Moab.

Although supportive of the idea, Jackson isn’t in any hurry to take action.

“Full-scale air-quality monitoring can cost around $300,000,” Jackson said. “We don’t have the funding for that.”

After 32 years with the BLM, Jackson has dealt with air-quality issues on numerous occasions.

“I know the costs involved in air-quality monitoring,” he said. “It’s extremely expensive.”

Jackson, who has been with the Grand County Council since January 2013, said that he would be glad to put the idea in front of council to hear other members’ thoughts on the issue.

“If there are groups in the community that are interested and have the necessary resources, I would not oppose the placement of a monitor in the valley,” he said. “Based on the funding alone, though, I don’t see it as a priority for the county. We have a pretty tight budget and don’t have that kind of money lying around.”

Mary O’Brien, on the other hand, sees it as a big priority.

“Air-quality monitoring is incredibly important in order to attribute changes to particular sources,” she said. “The monitoring should be developed collaboratively with interested parties in the Moab community.”

O’Brien, who serves as Utah Forests program director for Grand Canyon Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “protecting and restoring the Colorado Plateau,” believes there should be clear thresholds at which point actions will be taken.

“Elected officials and agency personnel can look like they're ‘doing something’ about air quality if they're monitoring,” O’Brien said, “but without a linkage to thresholds for action, inevitably the onus will be put on the public to prove ‘significance’ or ‘health damage,’ and then no action will be taken because that is an essentially impossible task.”

Miller is also hopeful for action and would like to see several monitors established throughout the valley.

“I just want to ask the council to please allocate the funding for this now,” Miller said. “I’ve heard from many people of late complaining about breathing problems, sinus infections, and things they’ve never been infected with before. I’ve heard from a health care professional that he has seen an increase of this as well.”

Until the idea materializes, Moab residents and visitors can view NPS’s online chart, which shows the average ozone concentrations at I-Sky in comparison with the NAAQS. This can help determine the levels of heath concern and caution, especially for areas closer to Canyonlands National Park.

“As it gets hotter and sunnier, people should keep an eye on these levels, especially if they’re more susceptible to ozone problems,” Baird said. “My main concern is to make sure people know when the air is bad so they can make a conscious decision to be outdoors.”

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