Local air quality passes the test
Four Corners ozone levels predicted to stay below federal standard

Views such as this should not become obscured with pollution over the next several years, according to a computer analysis conducted by the New Mexico Air Quality Bureau, which predicts that ozone, or smog, levels in the Four Corners will stay within acceptable
federal standards./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

There is a silver lining to the ozone cloud hovering over the Four Corners, says a State of New Mexico air quality expert. There had been concerns that levels of the toxic gas generated from emissions would exceed federal levels.

However, according to Mary Uhl, of the New Mexico Environmental Department’s Air Quality Bureau, recent computer models show that while the area’s ozone levels are unusually high, they are not expected to exceed federal standards over the next several years.

“What we are predicting is that we are not going to see that area exceed federal standards,” she said. “This is good news.”

Uhl said the predictions are especially welcome given the projected growth in the area as well as the addition of up to 13,000 new gas wells and three coal-fired power plants in northern New Mexico.

“Even with growth and the new power plants, we still saw compliance with federal standards,” she said.

Uhl said ozone is expected to remain at acceptable levels because, although the area is growing, new federal mandates are helping to lower ozone-causing emissions.

“It’s kind of balancing itself out,” she said. “What we are saying is not that the situation will get better, but it will basically stay the same.”

The computer modeling was based on data collected by the Four Corners Ozone Task Force, an advisory group made of varied interests. The task force was formed in October of 2002 in response to ozone readings near Farmington that rival those found in larger cities, such as Los Angeles, and have come close to exceeding federal standards. If the area is found to exceed federal standards of 84 parts per million (the three-year average for the area from 2000-2003 is about 76), the Environmental Protection Agency would step in to clean things up, a step which could have a significant economic impact on the area. As a result, the task force was formed to help come up with local solutions to the ozone problem.

Ground-level ozone (as opposed to that found in the stratosphere), commonly known as smog, is a toxic brew that forms when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react with sunlight and heat. The resulting substance, when inhaled, triggers respiratory ailments, particularly among children and people who are active outdoors. Such ailments include reduced lung capacity, bronchitis and aggravation of asthma. Repeated exposure over several months can cause permanent lung damage.

Typical sources of these pollutants are power plants, combustion engines and oil and gas compressors. In the Four Corners, the biggest emitters of ozone-making particles are the San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant, both near Farmington. Although the plants are more than 60 miles from Durango, ozone can be transported many miles from its source by wind, making it a basinwide problem.

Dan Randolph, of the San Juan Citizens’ Alliance, an ardent watchdog of the oil and gas and power industries, said he does not necessarily see the predictions as good news.

“We are still very close to the federal limit, and with this modeling data, what we’re nervous about is everyone saying ‘There’s no problem,’” he said. “Meanwhile, ozone is at a level that affects people with respiratory problems and active adults.”

He also warned of the possibility that the model may prove to be inaccurate.

A car crests Farmington Hill on Monday afternoon. Although ground-level ozone levels in the area are on par with cities much larger than Farmington or Durango, they are still within acceptable federal levels and are predicted to stay there./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

“If the model is wrong, we’ll find ourselves in a situation where the EPA steps in and dictates what we have to do,” he said.

And despite the promising projections, Randolph noted that they don’t erase that fact that for a rural area, the Four Corners’ ozone levels are unusually high, and steps must be taken to remedy that.

“We are still going to be living with impaired air quality,” he said. “We need to still make active efforts to reduce ozone precursors.”

Uhl agreed that despite the recent news, there is still a problem at hand.

“The area is still within federal standards, but on the other hand, it is a rural area. It is surprising to find ozone levels so high,” she said.

Such ozone levels, she said, are common to cities with half a million people or more. Even Albuquerque has lower ozone levels than Farmington.

Although she said she has faith in the model, which has been used with success in several large cities throughout the country, it is just one tool in predicting what the future holds. And the results don’t necessarily mean the task force’s work is done, either.

“We still need to be vigilant, and maybe the air quality is not as good as it should be,” she said. “We will still be meeting with the task force. Our work is not yet done.”






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