Groups lay out arguments against EPA over ozone problem in Uintah Basin

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 18 2013 12:20 p.m. MDT

In this 2012 file photo, researchers with the 2011-2012 Uintah Basin Winter Ozone Study demonstrate the use of a balloon to collect air samples Tuesday. (Geoff Liesik, Deseret News) In this 2012 file photo, researchers with the 2011-2012 Uintah Basin Winter Ozone Study demonstrate the use of a balloon to collect air samples Tuesday. (Geoff Liesik, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Clean air advocates and environmental groups are asserting that the Environmental Protection Agency fell down on the job when it failed to designate a swath of oil and gas country in eastern Utah in violation of national air quality standards.

In a Tuesday filing detailing their opening arguments in the federal lawsuit, groups including Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Earthjustice and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance say the EPA has not been protective of public health.

The inaction, the result of an EPA decision in 2012 to preclude the Uintah Basin as a "non-attainment" area, prompted a lawsuit several months later.

The filing represents the first detailed volley fired by the groups in a battle they say pits the health of residents against the lethargy of the government and the inaction of industry.

“We became involved because people in the area have come to us with concerns that there are serious health consequences already plaguing the Uintah Basin,” said Dr. Brian Moench of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “The EPA seems to have turned their back on this community and willfully ignored the evidence.”

The groups point out that the Uintah Basin exceeded federal health standards on at least 43 days, with vulnerable residents urged to stay indoors to avoid exposure — an irony they noted because of the area's wide open spaces and outdoor lifestyle.

“The Uintah Basin is home to some of the worst ground-level ozone pollution in the nation,” said Earthjustice attorney Robin Cooley who is representing the groups in court. “EPA needs to stop talking and start doing. The time has come to clean up the air.”

The filing notes the contradictory behavior of the federal regulatory agency, detailing an enforcement action between the EPA and an oil and gas company that ultimately resulted in the company installing and operating two air quality monitors in the basin.

The monitors, known as the Redwash and Ouray monitors, detected wintertime ozone in violation of national air quality standards — data the EPA concedes is not flawed, according to the document.

Despite those findings, the EPA has said it cannot rely on that information to make a non-attainment designation because the data are "non-regulatory" and would not withstand a court challenge.

Cooley said that argument doesn't make sense.

"What is the point of putting the monitors out there if you are not going to rely on the data? What we are trying to do is force the EPA to take that into account," she said. "A designation would mean the state and the EPA are going to have to come up with a plan. That hammer of non-attainment just doesn't exist right now."

The suit was filed in July of 2012 in the midst of a partnership that involves the EPA, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, the University of Utah and the oil and gas industry to get at the genesis of the ozone problem in the Uintah Basin.

The $5.5 million study is the most expansive air quality study undertaken in Utah to tackle what is typically a summertime pollution problem in urbanized areas.

The groups' challenge seeks EPA reconsideration and review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

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