Local air quality faces dim future
Task force tries to get a grip on area's high ozone levels

Compressors used to extract gas from wells, such as this one in La PLata County, are at least partially to blame for the area’s ozone pollution woes. A study commissioned by the New Mexico Department of Environment on the San Juan Basin’s air quality is due out in a couple weeks./Photo by Missy Votel.

Air pollution is becoming a growing concern for La Plata County. And while increased local traffic and particulates from things like dust and coal smoke may seem like obvious culprits, industry predominantly in northern New Mexico is beginning to impact the quality of La Plata County’s air. As a result, a coalition-based effort, the Four Corners Ozone Task Force, is assessing the severity of the problem and searching for solutions.

Ozone is a toxic substance that is formed when pollutants emitted by power plants, oil and gas compressors, processing plants, cars and trucks, gas heaters and other sources are stimulated by sunlight and heat. The result is an odorless, colorless gas that can seriously reduce and irritate lung function, particularly in children and infirm adults. Even at low levels, like 50-60 parts-per-billion, ozone has been shown to be detrimental to human health.

The formation of the Four Corners Ozone Task Force was spurred largely by findings that ozone readings in Farmington and San Juan County are higher than 50 ppb on most summer days, regularly exceed 70 ppb and have come close to passing the federal limit of 84 ppb. That heightened level of ozone also does not remain in San Juan County, but permeates the entire basin, including La Plata County.

“We cannot pretend any longer that this is pristine air that we’re breathing,” said Brooks Taylor of the San Juan Citizens’ Alliance’s air quality working group.

Taylor noted that Northern New Mexico and Southwestern Colorado share the same airshed, and while local air quality has not yet reached critical standards, it is time to take action.

“In the broad sense, we’re not at a crisis stage yet,” he said. “But we’re in a position where we can avoid further impacts to our air quality 85 There’s a lot of evidence that in the Farmington/Aztec area, air quality is reaching a critical point.”

Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens’ Alliance, said that the picture across the New Mexico-Colorado border encouraged the organization to get concerned about basin air quality and get involved with the Four Corners Ozone Task Force. 4

“I think we found it very surprising that a community in our basin was close to exceeding the federal requirements for ozone and putting us in league with communities like Los Angeles,” he said.

Taylor added that one of the hardest things to swallow is that Durango is not a major urban area and the sources of pollution are not as obvious.

“The thing that’s difficult about the situation here is we’re not in a metropolitan area,” he said. “Auto exhaust is not a big problem. The big players for us are coal-fired power plants and all of the things related to oil and gas development.”

Taylor and Pearson also cited the recent approval of up to 13,000 new gas wells and associated compressors in Northern New Mexico and the push to drill hundreds more wells in southeast La Plata County. They also referenced the push by Steag Power, a German power company, to get in on the Four Corners electricity scene and build a giant, coal-fired electricity plant near Farmington.

Although coal smoke may be a common sight in Durango skies, it is not the most significant factor in diminished local air quality. According to the Four Corners Ozone Task Force, gas well compressors and coal-fired power plants in Northern New Mexico are the main ulprits./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

“There’s only more of it on the horizon,” Pearson said. “Our feeling is that as an organization, if we don’t get a handle on this, we’re going to wake up one morning with some really foul air in our basin.”

Triggered by high ozone in the Farmington area, the State of New Mexico Environment Department created the Four Corners Ozone Task Force in October of 2002.

The 60-person group contains representatives from conservation groups, area governments and tribes, industry, and others. Mary Uhl, of the State of New Mexico Air Quality Bureau, said that the group’s current task is figuring out how high ozone levels are in the basin.

“We’re getting very close to the standard,” she said. “Our concern is what might put us over the top.”

In cooperation with the University of New Mexico, the San Juan Citizens’ Alliance monitored ozone concentrations in the San Juan Basin this summer. Four of the monitors were located around Farmington and Shiprock. Another two were placed in La Plata County, near Bondad and Farmington Hill, and citizen volunteers collected samples on a weekly basis.

Uhl said that the testing has been completed and the final results will be revealed at the task force’s December meeting. However, she did say that she has gotten early reports, and they were not positive.

“I’m really excited to get the information,” she said. “They’ve told me that it’s pretty interesting. It may be more widespread than we’d initially believed.”

Once the results are in, Uhl said that the group can start looking for solutions. “The City of Farmington, San Juan County and the task force will be involved in looking at solutions and finding a remedy that’s specific to the area and the local community,” she said.

As for solutions, Taylor and Pearson said that much of the burden should rest on the oil and gas and power plant industries.

“There are means to reduce the emissions,” Taylor said.

Pearson concurred, saying, “Part of the vast increase that we’re seeing is because of compressors on oil and gas wells. There’s a simple fix, and that’s to stick catalytic converters on the exhaust pipes. So far the industry has been too cheap to do that.”

The test results should be available Dec. 16.







News Index Second Index Opinion Index Classifieds Index Contact Index