PINEDALE -- This little mountain town has had some big-city-like air pollution in recent winters, and some folks here are fuming.
About 170 people showed up Monday for a meeting hosted here by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality at the Rendezvous Pointe Senior Center. And in the end there were more questions and comments from the audience, than there was time for DEQ officials to answer.
Audience members, one after another, expressed varying levels of exasperation, frustration and grave concern about the increased levels of air and water pollution that have been monitored here by the DEQ in recent years, most of which can be attributed to the natural gas boom playing out in the nearby Pinedale Anticline and Jonah fields.
The DEQ has monitored elevated ozone levels during the wintertime in Sublette County since 2005, and this winter the agency has issued five ozone warnings for the region. Ozone is a potentially poisonous air pollutant created when emissions from combustion engines interact with sunlight.
DEQ Director John Cora expressed sympathy for the locals' concerns and promised that his agency would work hard to get a better handle on regional air quality.
"We're not here tonight to tell you we have this under control," Cora said. "We're here to tell you that we're working on it."
Several commenters asked how the Bureau of Land Management could even contemplate allowing more wells in the Pinedale Anticline when there are already serious air quality problems from current levels of development.
There are an estimated 850 to 1,000 producing natural gas wells on the Pinedale Anticline, and the BLM has proposed to expand that number to about 4,400 wells in the coming years.
The best thing the DEQ can do to protect area residents and improve air quality, Cora said, is to work with the Environmental Protection Agency and the BLM to create a new record of decision for the Pinedale Anticline gas field that does more to mitigate all types of air and water pollution.
Cora indicated that the high level of community involvement - as indicated by Monday's meeting - and the local concern that has been continuously expressed will lead to a more responsible development plan for the Anticline.
"We're going to see a significantly stronger EIS because of [agency] and your comments," Cora said. "You have every right to be upset and concerned about these issues. We're going to continue to communicate with you until this gets resolved."
Cora told the audience there is an ongoing $6 million air quality study in southwest Wyoming, and in addition to the handful of regional ozone monitors, the DEQ will be adding one to downtown Pinedale in the coming months.
Karen Rogers, a Pinedale resident who worked for the BLM for nine years, expressed doubts that the DEQ or residents of Pinedale can do anything to curb the pace of development. In an interview during the meeting, Rogers told the Star-Tribune that she believes the BLM is determined to develop the field as quickly as possible, regardless of the negative environmental and social impacts for the region.
It is this kind of philosophy, Rogers said, that compelled her to leave the BLM.
"I think it's shameful what the government agencies have allowed to happen," Rogers said. "I think the state is truly trying, but industry is totally driving the show."
Diana Hoff, field manager for the Pinedale division of Questar Exploration and Production Co., said the ongoing updated environmental analysis and subsequent new development rules will go a long way toward addressing the concerns expressed by community members Monday night.
Requiring producers to implement the latest technologies and mitigation techniques, coupled with the greater levels of efficiency provided by year-round access, will make the air cleaner, even though more wells will be drilled, Hoff said.
"More wells doesn't mean more emissions," Hoff said. "We've eliminated 34,000 truck trips since November of 2005 with our liquids gathering system [in the Pinedale Anticline], and we estimate that 165,000 truck trips will be eliminated per year when the field is at maximum development."