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Wasatch Front, portions of Uinta Basin miss ozone standard

FILE - Inversion fills the Wasatch Front on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. The Wasatch Front, along with parts of Duchesne and Uintah counties below 6,250 feet, were deemed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be in "marginal" nonattainment for complianc
FILE - Inversion fills the Wasatch Front on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. The Wasatch Front, along with parts of Duchesne and Uintah counties below 6,250 feet, were deemed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be in "marginal" nonattainment for compliance with the eight-hour standard for ozone pollution.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday the Wasatch Front and portions of Uintah and Duchesne counties are violating the eight-hour standard for ozone pollution, but only narrowly.

Areas out of compliance are Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Tooele and Utah counties, and parts of Uintah and Duchesne counties below an elevation of 6,250 feet.

The EPA deemed those areas to be in "marginal nonattainment," which is the least stringent classification — designations that can include extreme, serious and moderate.

"In a way, this is our written warning," said Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality.

"When the standard for ozone was lowered from 75 parts per billion to 70 ppb in 2015, we understood that the change would have an impact on northern Utah and the Uinta Basin. We've spent that last two years working to meet the stricter standard."

EPA calculates ozone compliance on a three-year average of the fourth-highest monitored eight-hour average. The fourth-highest monitored eight-hour average along the Wasatch Front was 74 ppb at Bountiful in 2014, 82 ppb at Bountiful in 2015, and 76 ppb at Bountiful in 2016.

Ozone is a secondary pollutant formed by a chemical reaction involving nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds and sunlight. Summertime smog is linked to traffic congestion and human products that produce volatile organic compounds, such as paint, oils, coatings, and even hair spray and perfumes.

The EPA says even relatively low levels of ozone can cause health effects and is particularly problematic for people suffering from asthma, young children and older adults with respiratory problems.

Over the last year, Utah's Air Quality Board acted on 14 rules limiting volatile organic compounds.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality also initiated a program to loan infrared cameras to oil and gas operators in the Uinta Basin to identify and repair leaks of volatile organic compounds early in a move to reduce emissions there.

The basin struggles with unique problem of wintertime ozone due to energy production.

Jon Goldstein, director of regulatory and legislative affairs with the Environmental Defense Fund, said regulators and industry need to continue their efforts to curtail pollution.

"By implementing simple, straightforward pollution standards for the oil and gas sector, the state of Utah and the Environmental Protection Agency can deliver major clean air benefits for people in Duchesne and Uintah counties," he said. "The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has made gains in recent months to update the state's oil and gas policies, but this progress must continue to restore healthy air quality to Utah's families."

Utah has partnered with the oil and gas industry, federal scientists and university researchers to study the complex atmospheric formation of wintertime smog in the basin.

The rest of the state — in fact much of the West — is suffering from an influx of ground level ozone despite an array of pollution controls instituted over the last half-century.

A 2017 study showed much of the blame rests with Asian countries, which have tripled nitrogen oxide emissions since 1990.

Researchers mapped the sources of the air pollution to determine what is driving ozone formation at national parks in the West, examining contributors like wildfires and global methane from livestock.

The study led by Princeton University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that wildfire emissions contributed less than 10 percent, and methane from livestock was about 15 percent of the western U.S. ozone increase, while Asian air pollution contributed as much as 65 percent.

In 2015, the EPA lowered the standard from 75 ppb to 70 ppb, inciting a range of reaction from critics who argued that the change was either too aggressive or not aggressive enough.

Utah was among multiple states to legally challenge the new standard.

Under the marginal nonattainment designation, Utah is not required to submit a formal state implementation plan to the EPA, a step which is required under moderate or serious designations. Utah is still required to meet the standard within the next three years.