Shell's preliminary ozone monitoring near Hayden detects no violation of federal standards

— Preliminary reports from an ozone testing site operated by Shell Oil southeast of Hayden show the levels of the air pollutant were within state and federal attainment levels for six months last winter. However, it’s another story near the town of Rangely in neighboring Rio Blanco County.

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported May 14 that environmental group WildEarth Guardians said state officials are looking into ozone levels detected at a monitor in Rangely that exceeded the threshold of 75 parts per billion 22 times during the winter.

Ozone is a pollutant that contributes to smog and results when exhaust from automobiles, smokestacks and potentially oil and gas drilling reacts with intense sunlight. It can have a negative impact on the human respiratory system and is thought to be exacerbated by light reflecting off snowpack in the high mountain valleys of the West.

Technically, the federal standard is deemed to be violated only after three years of testing. A violation occurs when the three-year average of the fourth-highest annual ozone reading within an area exceeds 75 parts per billion.

“It’s a significant red flag,” Routt County Department of Environmental Health Director Mike Zopf said about the non-attainment results for Rio Blanco County. “It’s the first time the Western Slope has seen levels of ozone that violate state and federal standards. I think it’s important the community establish an ozone monitoring site sometime in the near future.”

Zopf said he would make a 2013 budget request that the county seek a cost-share with the city of Steamboat Springs for an ozone monitoring program. The program is estimated to cost $175,000 for three years.

The Shell Oil monitoring effort in Routt County is expected to continue only through the end of 2013, Zopf said. That monitor detected ozone levels at 50 parts per billion in the fourth quarter of 2012, below the federal standard of 75 parts per billion, he said. So far, in 2013, the January level remained at 50 ppb, rose to 55 ppb in February and reached 65 ppb in March.

Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan asked Zopf during a Tuesday hearing if it wasn’t the case that the Shell results were favorable given that they were well within federal guidelines at a time when there really no significant oil production taking place in Routt County.

“What does this data mean? It’s hard to say. It’s six months of data for a standard that’s applied for a three-year period,” Zopf said. “You have to ask, ‘What are the sources?’ Wind speed and direction were not being recorded at the Shell site.”

Routt County Commissioner Steve Ivancie said he doesn’t think a one-year testing program is sufficient for reaching any conclusions.

“One year seems a little incomplete,” Ivancie said. “To be effective, one site doesn’t cut it. It’s got to be region-wide. The key is coordination.”

In a related matter, the commissioners expressed little enthusiasm for spending $450,000 throughout the next three years to collaborate with the U.S. Geological Survey on a groundwater monitoring program that would sample as many as 90 water wells to establish baseline water quality in three different aquifers that supply domestic water to rural homes and small towns in the county. The USGS suggested the groundwater testing be conducted in anticipation of more energy exploration. The cost was cited as the main reason for the commissioners’ reluctance.

“If we had to choose between funding air quality testing and (ground) water quality studies, I’d be more interested in funding the air quality,” Corrigan said.

Routt County already is collaborating with the city of Steamboat Springs on surface water quality monitoring in the Yampa River.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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