PINEDALE — Sublette County residents this week expressed frustration and some anger to state health and environmental regulators about the winter ozone problem that plagued the county this winter.
Packed into a large meeting room in Pinedale Tuesday night, a few members of the public directed their criticisms at representatives of the largest energy companies operating on the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah gas fields.
Rita Donham of Cora opened fire with her view: “We used to have the best air in the whole damn country, and look at it now. It’s gone way downhill, and it didn’t start until industry started here — till you all moved in and started making money, and we’re paying for it now. We’re sick of it.”
Donham said industry should have to fund health monitoring for the people of the county, provide compensation to those impaired by health issues caused by ozone, and should pay to relocate sensitive individuals out of the area during the winter drilling months.
Encana’s David Stewart detailed his company’s efforts toward short-term emissions reductions in response to ozone advisories, with that deferred work for contractors totaling about $6 million. The ozone advisories issued by state officials trigger energy companies to reduce emissions when the weather pattern appears prime for ground-level ozone creation.
Isabel Rucker of Pinedale voiced concern for industry workers, noting the hundreds of people employed by subcontractors working for the big energy companies. “These subcontractors have to choose between either sending their men out to work in hazardous conditions, or sending them home without pay,” Rucker noted.
Rucker asked for more state environmental regulators in the county, and for installation of more air quality monitors closer to workers in the gas fields.
Nurse practitioner Leslie Rozier spoke of her experience with energy company representatives not wanting to have reportable health or safety incidents, and how this can influence patient care for workers. Reflecting on that experience, Rozier noted that emissions reduction reports are self-reported by the energy companies.
“How can I trust your self-reports from rigs?” she asked. “I don’t believe it. Are they true? Are they accurate? How can I trust you?”
Pinedale’s Mary Lynn Worl, a spokeswoman for the grassroots group Citizens for United Energy Development, told the crowd: “The precursors to ozone — volatile organic compounds and nitrous oxide — are health risks independent of the formation of ozone. These contaminants are found in significant levels in Sublette County not just in the winter, but year around. So we shouldn’t think everything is going to be fine when the snow goes away. The precursors for ozone are here everyday, as another form of air pollution.”
Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality Director John Corra noted that the winter of 2008 was the last time Sublette County had an ozone problem, and at that time Corra pledged his agency would work to resolve the issue. There have been significant reductions in the amount of air polluting emissions inventories since that time, but there have been 13 days of elevated ozone in the county in March this year.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work, but we haven’t solved the problem,” Corra said. “It is just as bad now as it was back then, and may be slightly worse.”
Corra pledged his agency’s commitment to solving the problem. “I just regret that we haven’t found the solution yet,” he said.
State regulators have ramped up compliance inspections and have undertaken additional research in attempt to learn the specifics of the winter ozone problem that occurs when ozone precursors mix with strong temperature inversions, low winds, snow cover and bright sunlight. Corra noted that DEQ is working with industry to learn what else the companies can do to reduce pollutants that cause the problem. Corra noted that “operational changes during the winter ozone season” are possible, but declined to offer specifics.
Pinedale’s Tom Curry, a former Bureau of Land Management employee, said there seems to be a correlation between the ozone problem and the BLM’s approval of winter drilling near Pinedale. He suggested that shutting down drilling should be an option.
Corra said state officials have no authority to shut down drilling. He added that if that shutting down rigs were considered, the risk to worker safety would need to be considered, plus issues such as whether restarting rigs would result in more emissions than continued drilling.
After more than three hours, Corra thanked the crowd for its input. “We’ve got to look at everything and anything,” he said. “We have much to do.”
The Sublette County Commission hosted the ozone meeting, and will host another public meeting to discuss the results of a health risk assessment, also related to energy development, at 6 p.m. on March 31 in the Sublette County Library in Pinedale.