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Howard Shorthill, Utah State University
Researchers with the Uintah Basin Winter Ozone Study launch a blimp in early 2011 to take air quality samples at various altitudes. The study, spearheaded by Utah State University's Energy Dynamics Lab, is expected to take several years to complete

JENSEN, Uintah County — There's some serious science going on at the Split Mountain Garden Center.

The small nursery is home to one of 30 air-quality monitors collecting data in the Uintah Basin this winter — devices that researchers at Utah State University’s Energy Dynamics Lab hope will tell them why the air goes bad in the region when the mercury drops.

“We want to understand what causes the ozone formation. What are the main reactants, the pollutants? And then understand, what are the things we can do to reduce those ozone levels?” said Scott Hill, project manager of the Uintah Basin Winter Ozone Study.

In the first three months of 2011, ground-level ozone exceeded federal standards 26 times in the Uintah Basin, according data gathered by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. That was down from 37 days for the same period in 2010, the agency said.

The EPA is a partner in the Utah State study, as are a number of other federal, state, tribal and county entities, including the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, the State School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, the Ute Indian Tribe, Duchesne and Uintah counties, and the Uintah County Impact Mitigation Special Service District.

Researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder are also assisting with the study, which has received support and partial funding from the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and natural gas advocacy group.

“This is very unique,” Hill said. “I’ve never been involved in a study that has brought together this many agencies and this many groups focused on a single problem.

“We have some very qualified researchers participating in this,” he added. “This is really a world-class study.”

The exploration for and production of oil and natural gas has been identified as one possible contributor to winter ozone. The processes involved emit large amounts of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, which are ozone precursors.

The USU study, which is in its second year, is looking into the apparent connection. But the study’s findings aren’t meant to influence EPA regulation of the energy industry, Hill said.

“None of the data that we’re measuring — even though it’s regulatory quality — none of it will be used for regulatory purposes,” he said. “The EPA has its own regulatory monitors set up and those are what will be used for determining regulation.” 

One challenge for researchers this year is that there's no snow on the ground in the Uintah Basin. The white stuff is a key component in the creation of winter ozone.

Winter ozone is produced when chemical particles from automobile exhaust and other sources is trapped under an atmospheric inversion and heated up by sunlight reflecting off the snow on the ground.

Researchers targeted this year’s study toward identifying the “detailed chemistry” of winter ozone, Hill said. They may have to rethink their plan of attack, if snow doesn’t arrive soon.

“We probably would scale that study down and do it in a year when there is more snow and more ozone being produced,” Hill said.

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com, Twitter: GeoffLiesik