Cleaner air for the Cowboy State

Even remote spots like the Wind Rivers could benefit from the EPA's proposed crack down on polluters.


Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed to update the Clean Air Act and decrease ozone levels from the current standard of 75 parts per billion to a much healthier 65 or 70 ppb. Like many Westerners, my first thoughts were of the smoggy skylines of Los Angeles and the notoriously hazy oilfields of Utah’s Uintah Basin — places synonymous with dirty air.

Far less likely to come to mind is Wyoming’s Wind River Range, a 2,800-square-mile wilderness better known for its toothy cirques and crystalline lakes than for air pollution. Over the last 30 years, though, some 10,000 natural gas wells have been drilled directly upwind of the range, and another 8,000 are in the works.

Data collected by the Forest Service during the same period has shown that nitrogen deposition — air pollution that settles in lakes and streams — has increased sevenfold from historic background levels, significantly altering the chemistry and ecology of alpine lakes. Old-time mountaineers say that air at high elevations has become noticeably smoggier. And in surrounding valleys, smog levels can exceed those of Los Angeles, causing heath concerns among residents. The Wyoming Department of Health found that respiratory-related clinic visits in nearby Sublette County increased by 3 percent every time ozone levels rose by 10 ppb. (Ozone fluctuates from day to day.) 

In fact, the entire Wind River Range and the counties around it were identified by the EPA last week as among 80-plus places in the West that would violate its proposed air quality regulations, which are now up for public comment. Nearly all of California and Arizona would be in violation too, along with oil and gas-rich pockets and urban sprawl in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and Wyoming. 

The good news is that, apart from California (which is its own beast and will be given extra time to comply), the EPA projects most Western counties — including all of Wyoming’s — will be able to meet the new standards by 2025, just as 90 percent of counties not in compliance with 1997 ozone standards are in compliance today. States have until 2037 to decide how to implement the standards and cut back on emissions. 

But Wyoming is already under pressure from the EPA to reduce ozone spikes — which often exceed current standards — and is considering separate proposals to better monitor leaks and reduce emissions from oil and gas infrastructure. Industry groups have criticized the proposals as going too far, too fast, which is likely why Republican lawmakers like Wyoming Senator John Barrasso have come out in arms against the EPA changes. Barrasso, who spent 24 years as a surgeon, said in a statement that he and his fellow Republicans will do “everything possible to stop this regulation” and that the health costs of breathing dirty air will be far exceeded by the “very serious health impacts of unemployment that will result because of (this) rule.”

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, in an op-ed for CNN, argues just the opposite: every dollar spent on cleaning air pollution yields $3 in saved healthcare costs, and critics have predicted similar economic doom every time a major environmental standard has been rolled out. None of the doomsaying, McCarthy notes, has come to pass. “Over four decades, we've cut air pollution by nearly 70%, while our economy has tripled in size,” she wrote. “The sky never fell.”

Except, perhaps, in Wyoming, where particulates from air pollution have indeed fallen onto once-pristine alpine environments. While McCarthy is right that the Clean Air Act has helped cut air pollution in the U.S., the Wind River Range is something of an anomaly: Several commonly-regulated pollutants, like sulfur oxides, have actually increased there.

But since no one knows yet what steps Wyoming will take to cut its air pollution, Ted Porwoll, an air-quality technician with the Bridger-Teton National Forest, says it’s not clear whether either state or federal standards will significantly reduce nitrogen deposition in the Winds. Still, they certainly can’t hurt — if current trends continue unabated, Porwoll says, alpine lakes could become subject to more algae blooms, changing the ecologic makeup of a place that until recently was considered too isolated and highly protected to suffer the effects of air pollution.

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2. 

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