VERNAL — The Wasatch Front isn't the only region in Utah to experience poor air quality when a winter inversion sets in.
The air in rural northeastern Utah also registers ground-level ozone during the winter at concentrations higher than those found in major U.S. cities like Los Angeles at the height of the summer.
On Tuesday, the principals behind the 2011-12 Uintah Basin Winter Ozone Study — a $5.5 million effort to determine why winter ozone is such a problem in the region — held a public kick-off at the Utah State University regional campus in Vernal.
"Ozone is a very complicated, complex pollutant," said Brock LeBaron, deputy director of the Utah Division of Air Quality.
"It's not something that is simply emitted from a source out in the Basin directly," he added. "If that were the issue, we could solve the problem tomorrow."
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.
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 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.
"It's definitely the largest air quality study we've ever conducted in the state of Utah," LeBaron said, noting that there are at least 30 scientists working on the study.
Those scientists are taking measurements from 30 fixed monitoring stations. They are also using a van loaded with sophisticated equipment capable of measuring air quality while moving and with tethered balloons that can be raised more than 525 feet in the air to take samples.
Researchers are also seeking to catalog all emission sources in the region that might contribute to the formation of winter ozone, LeBaron said.
"You can collect all these ambient measurements, but you have to tie them back to the source somehow," he said, "and so the emission inventory list is critical to understanding the problem."
One of the largest suspected contributors is the exploration for and production of oil and natural gas in the region. The processes emit large amounts of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, which are ozone precursors.
The involvement of the Western Energy Alliance, coupled with other changes in exploration and production methods, demonstrates that the energy industry is committed to improving the Basin's air quality, according to Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee.
"Industry is stepping up," he said. "Industry is using better, cleaner, improved technology. They are already reducing emissions in a number of things they're doing."
Those include disposing of production water into injection wells rather than using massive evaporation ponds, and reducing the number of generators used to power oil-field locations by running electrical lines to the sites instead.
Researchers targeted this year’s study toward identifying the “detailed chemistry” of winter ozone. They will likely have to rethink their plan of attack, given the absence of any significant snowpack.
"With this lack of snow, that's set back some components of the study," LeBaron said. "That might mean we'll get to the end of the study this spring, have to huddle up, figure out what we learned and what we didn't, and then we'll have to plug in those holes next year, or when we get the right conditions."