High ozone levels prompt Wyoming DEQ to consider declaring emergency in Boulder
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.”
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 Quality’s 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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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.”