High ozone levels prompt Wyoming DEQ to consider declaring emergency in Boulder

National Weather Service courtesy image This map, issued by the National Weather Service, shows all meteorological alerts on March 21. Areas outlined in gray are places under an “air quality alert.” On March 21, the only locations in the country under an air quality alert were near Houston, Texas, where a large chemical fire burned, and Sublette County.

The amount of groundlevel

ozone at the Boulder monitoring station

spiked to a seasonal high on Wednesday and

Thursday, March 20-21, prompting the Wyoming

Department of Environmental Quality to

consider an emergency declaration on Friday.

As officials at the DEQ weighed taking

drastic action on Friday afternoon, the agency’s

public information officer, Keith Guille,

explained that an ozone emergency has never

been declared in Wyoming.

“This would be unprecedented,” he said.

“No emergency order like this has ever been


The federal Environmental Protection

Agency established acceptable ozone levels

at 70 parts per billion (ppb) in 2015. On Monday,

March 18, the eight-hour ozone level at

the Boulder monitoring station exceeded 70

ppb, rising to 100 ppb on Wednesday and 105

ppb on Thursday, according to the DEQ’s Air

Quality Monitoring Network. Late afternoon

hourly ozone levels on Wednesday and Thursday

exceeded 125 ppb.

The EPA considers an eight-hour ozone

level above 86 ppb to be “unhealthy,” and

anything above 106 ppb “very unhealthy.”

In Wyoming, when weather forecasters at the

DEQ predict that conditions will be favorable

for ground ozone to form at levels above 70

ppb, an “ozone action day” is called.

Nancy Vehr, Administrator of the DEQ’s

Air Quality Division, explained that the

agency considers declaring an emergency as

one of several options during all ozone action

days. On Friday, ozone levels at the Boulder

monitoring station remained below 70 ppb,

and the DEQ held off on declaring an emergency.

“This is a very dynamic situation, and we

will look at the numbers every day,” Vehr said.

“But (Friday’s) values are moving in a different

direction than they were in the past days,

and that’s really good news. Levels could still

be elevated next week, but we don’t anticipate

the same levels that we saw this week.”

Vehr pointed out that of the five monitoring

stations across Sublette County, the Boulder

station was the only location where eight-hour

ozone levels exceeded the acceptable rate of

70 ppb. Vehr said there was “no indication”

that the ozone pollution was moving beyond

Boulder, and the fact that the situation was so

localized was also “good news.”

Bad ozone

Not all ozone is bad. Ozone exists far up in

the Earth’s atmosphere and protects the planet

from harmful ultraviolet rays, explained

Elaine Crumpley, a retired science teacher

from Pinedale Middle School. But ozone that

forms at the ground level where people can

breath it in is a health risk, she said.

Crumpley formed Citizens United for Re-

Wyoming Department of Environmental Qualitys Division of Air Quality courtesy photo

This image shows the eight-hour level of ozone at the Boulder monitoring

station the week of March 17-244. The blue line indicates the acceptable

level of ozone established by the EPA in 2015 at 70 ppb.

High ozone levels prompt Wyoming DEQ

to consider declaring emergency in Boulder

By Robert Galbreath, [email protected]

sponsible Energy Development (CURED)

with other local citizens concerned about the

rising levels of pollution at the height of the

energy boom in Sublette County. Crumpley

served with the DEQ and members of the energy

industry on a state government task force

to combat ozone.

Idling cars and fires can release chemicals

into the air that cause ozone to form, Crumpley

said. However, she believes there is a correlation

between high levels of ozone and the

energy industry.

“Yes, we all need to do things to help the

situation like not idling our cars,” she said.

“Yet we only have two people per square mile

in the county and we have some of the dirtiest

air in the nation. We’re missing the elephant

in the room.”

Crumpley worries that with snow still on

the ground, the ozone problem may continue

beyond the usual January-March season and

into April.

“We’re having too many exceedences, and

the state may have to get involved,” she said.

“People are working outside and children are

playing outside (in Boulder). We live here.

We want to make Sublette County livable and

be good neighbors and work together (with

the energy industry). But this is difficult when

we have such high levels of ozone.”

What is ozone

Residents in large cities are used to high

levels of ozone in the summer. The phenomenon

of ozone forming at the ground level in

rural areas during wintertime is new, however,

and scientists are scrambling to learn more

about the problem, said Guille.

“Winter ozone is a very unique situation,”

he said. “We didn’t know that it existed outside

of urban areas.”

As ozone levels rose, the DEQ established

monitoring stations across Wyoming in 2005.

Sublette County is “ripe for ozone,” Guille explained.

From January to March, the ground is

typically covered in snow. The sun shines and

there is little wind. The rugged terrain creates

temperature inversions that allow pollutants to

hang in the valleys.

Ozone is a “secondary pollutant,” Guille

continued. Humans release substances called

volatile organic compounds and nitrogen

oxide into the air where they react with sunlight

reflected from the snow to create ozone.

The volatile organic compounds and nitrogen

oxide can be released from car emissions

and people burning fires. The DEQ,

however, does not regulate emissions from

these sources, Guille said. Instead, the

agency focuses regulations on the oil


Guille added.

Ozone as a health risk

As ozone levels rose over past weeks, the

Pinedale Medical Clinic saw a rise in respiratory

patients experiencing problems, said

Dr. David Kappenman, clinic director for the

Sublette County Rural Health Care District.

Providers also reported filling out additional

prescriptions for medications like Albuterol

for asthma patients.

High levels of ozone on the ground pose a

particular risk for certain groups like children,

the elderly and those with respiratory conditions,

Dr. Kappenman explained.

“People with pre-existing conditions need

to be very careful this time of year,” he said.

“People with conditions like asthma and

COPD should really try not to exert themselves

too much.”

Breathing in ozone can “feel like you’re

standing around a campfire for too long or

are in a smoky restaurant,” Kappenman explained.

“Ozone is an irritant, much like if you

were trying to breathe in coal dust.”

People experiencing respiratory problems

during ozone alert days need to contact their

medical provider “right away,” said Dr. Alexia

Harrist, Wyoming State Epidemiologist and

Health Officer. Dr. Harrist also encouraged

people who fall in one of the high-risk groups

to talk with their provider each season about

preventative measures.

Ozone causes an inflammation of the

lungs, Dr. Harrist explained. Warning signs

that ozone is a problem include a narrowing

of the airways, difficulty breathing, coughing,

shortness of breath and irritation of the eyes

and nose.

Children are particularly “dependent on the

level of ozone,” she added. If there are schools

in an area where ozone levels are high, the

agency may request that schools “limit activities”

as one strategy, Dr. Harrist said.

Working to reduce emissions

During an ozone action day, the DEQ alerts

the public that ozone levels are above 70 ppb

and can cause health problems, Vehr said. The

agency recommends that residents try to cut

back on running their cars and burning slash

piles or woodstoves.

Across Sublette County, the DEQ has

worked with local governments and industry

to implement voluntary contingency plans to

reduce emissions on ozone alert days. Nearly

40 companies and agencies in the region have

created plans that involve “drastic” cutbacks

in operations to curb the release of pollutants

that lead to the formation of ozone, Vehr explained.

“We’ve found companies operating in the

area to be really responsive,” she said. The list

of entities that have created contingency plans

include the county, the Town of Pinedale and

most of the “major players” in the energy industry

– Jonah Energy, Ultra Petroleum, Pinedale

Energy Partners and Andeavor.

When the ozone action days were issued

this month, Jonah Energy immediately implemented

contingency plans.

Most of Jonah’s operations are closer to the

Juel Spring monitoring station, not Boulder,

said Paul Ulrich, director of government affairs.

While high levels of ozone plagued the

Boulder station for the past two weeks, the

8-hour ozone average levels at Juel Spring did

not exceed 70 ppb.

Ulrich credited the low levels at Juel Spring

to Jonah’s success with its contingency plan.

The measures include a deferment of all “non

essential” construction work, such as blowing

down wells and building new drilling pads.

Air heaters are turned down and the use of

equipment in the field is limited. Jonah also

steps up leak repair and inspection.

“We take any exceedence very seriously,”

Ulrich. “We really ramped up our contingency

plan and will cooperate with the DEQ. We

live here too and are affected by the ozone.”

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