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Uintah Basin ozone problem triggers lawsuit against EPA

Published: Monday, July 23 2012 12:13 p.m. MDT

Researchers with the 2011-2012 Uintah Basin Winter Ozone Study demonstrate the use of a balloon to collect air samples Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012, at Utah State University Uintah Basin in Vernal. The $5.5 million study involves more than 30 scientists, who are trying to determine what causes high concentrations of ground-level ozone during the winter in the Uintah Basin. A coalition of public health and conservation groups is suing the Environmental Protection Agency, asserting it is failing to protect the Uinta Basin from high levels of air pollution.

Geoff Liesik, Deseret News

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VERNAL —  A coalition of public health and conservation groups is suing the Environmental Protection Agency, asserting it is failing to protect the Uintah Basin from high levels of air pollution.

“Smog is a serious public health threat,” said Dr. Brian Moench of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “We have to confront this serious air quality problem if we have any chance of providing a clean, healthy future for our children and communities.”

The suit, filed Friday by Earthjustice on behalf of WildEarth Guardians, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, challenges the EPA’s failure to declare that the Uintah Basin is violating federal health standards that limit concentrations of ground-level ozone in the air. Ground-level ozone forms when pollution from tailpipes and smokestacks interacts with sunlight.

Although usually a big city problem, monitors in Uintah County in the rural Uintah Basin of northeastern Utah have recorded ground-level ozone levels as high as large cities like Los Angeles or Houston.

“The Uintah Basin is home to some of the worst ground-level ozone pollution in the nation,” said Earthjustice staff attorney Robin Cooley who is representing the groups in court.

Despite monitoring showing violations of ground-level ozone standards, EPA did not  designate the Uintah Basin as a “nonattainment area," but instead said it was  “unclassifiable.”

The groups’ challenge seeks EPA reconsideration and court review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit concerning EPA’s decision, which was issued in May.

The suit comes even as the EPA is partnering with multiple agencies in the largest air pollution study conducted in Utah costing $5.5 million to get at the root of the ozone problem.

"Our feeling is that they already have data in hand to make a decision," Moench said. "The longer they put this off, the more real health consequences there will be. ... Why they are not acting on it to us seems inexplicable."

Monitoring data in the Uintah Basin collected between 2009 and 2011 shows violations of federal health limits on ground-level ozone, which are set at 75 parts per billion.  In 2010 and 2011, ozone levels rose as high as 121 parts per billion and 139 parts per billion, respectively. However, during this last winter, which was unusually mild and devoid of much snow cover, the state Division of Air Quality said federal standards were never exceeded.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com Twitter: amyjoi16

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